If you’re looking for a book dramatically grounded in land, culture, and people, Skull Water fits the bill. Set in South Korea 20 years after the war, Skull Water follows the adventures of Heinz, a young half-Korean, half-German army brat, as he seeks out the mythical and all healing power of skull water, or the water left over in a human skull after the body decomposes.
It’s evident from the very opening of the story that Skull Water is drawing from the Korean landscape in the same way that Big Uncle, Heinz’s ailing uncle, draws his knowledge from Korean earth. Filled with vivid descriptions of the Korean countryside, Skull Water never fails to convey the beauty and horror of a post-war reality.
The story also draws from Korean folktales, which like many folktales, are strange and uncanny. I was in the 6th grade when my parents gifted me a translated book of Korean folktales, which I instantly fell in love with. I felt the same connection to Skull Water. Not only an affinity for the half-White half-Korean Heinz, but also for the folktale-like quality of the writing.
Under the mystique of folktales and the matter-of-fact life stories is a pastoral coming-of-age novel which I did not expect. Towards the end of the novel, Heinz’s father is relocated, and Heinz and his family will return to America. The imminent departure and the idea of being torn away once again from Korea leaves Heinz in a distressed state, and a conversation with another one of his half-and-half friends sends him into an existential crisis.
He considers how his mother never spoke of his future, most likely because she never thought he had one, and how he doesn’t know what the future is going to look like. Catharsis comes in the final chapters of the story, as Heinz keeps promises that he made in the beginning of the book. There is a sense of completion to the story, rather than hope.
As a young person on the edge of Going Out Into the World, I understood on a bone deep level the kinds of fears that Heinz relayed. I will leave my home and when I come back, it will not be the same. My parents, my sister, even my dog will have changed. New houses will have gone up in our neighborhood, and new apartments in Downtown Seattle. Trees that I once knew might be cut down to make space or because of disease or simply because it was “blocking our shade.”
Skull Water brought me some peace. It gave me a sense that we are all repeating cycles, and that one day those cycles will come to an end. I will leave my home, just as my mother did, just as my father did. I will return home, just as my mother did, just as my father did. I will make a new home, just as my mother did, just as my father did. The cycle will be complete, and a new one will begin.