Growing up outside a US military base in South Korea in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Insu—the son of a Korean mother and a German father enlisted in the US Army—spends his days with his "half and half" friends skipping school, selling scavenged Western goods on the black market, watching Hollywood movies, and testing the boundaries between childhood and adulthood. When he hears a legend that water collected in a human skull will cure any sickness, he vows to find some in order to heal his ailing Big Uncle, a geomancer who has been exiled by the family to a mountain cave to die.
Specific and melancholic ... Fenkl depicts Insu’s mixed-race experience with...nuance ... Despite his meticulous attention to detail on the scene level, however, Fenkl sometimes neglects the more macroscopic continuities of plot and character ... Skull Water therefore feels realistic to a fault, Insu’s preoccupations coming and going, abandoned or cut short by the cruelty of circumstance ... The reader appreciates how any kind of loss is ultimately made up of everyday, nameable parts.
Epic ... Fenkl's writing is strongest in its meditations on karma, the lingering shadows of the Japanese occupation of Korea, the impending influence of American hegemony, the complexities of political and filial loyalty, and the struggle to feel at home. Early on, some scenes read as if they are vehicles for these meditations, but the novel comes into its own in the second half as it unites narrative power with philosophical musings with spectacular results ... A courageous and profound novel.