A century of Vietnam's history and folklore comes to life in this "brilliant, sweeping epic that swaps spirits and sheds time like snakeskin" (Paul Tremblay, author of A Head Full of Ghosts and Survivor Song). Two young women go missing decades apart. Both are fearless, both are lost. And both will have their revenge. 1986 The teenage daughter of a wealthy Vietnamese family loses her way in an abandoned rubber plantation while fleeing her angry father and is forever changed. 2011 A young, unhappy Vietnamese American woman disappears from her new home in Saigon without a trace.
The fates of these two women are inescapably linked, bound together by past generations, by ghosts and ancestors, by the history of possessed bodies and possessed lands. Alongside them, we meet a young boy who is sent to a boarding school for the métis children of French expatriates, just before Vietnam declares its independence from colonial rule; two Frenchmen who are trying to start a business with the Vietnam War on the horizon; and the employees of the Saigon Spirit Eradication Co., who find themselves investigating strange occurrences in a farmhouse on the edge of a forest. Each new character and timeline brings us one step closer to understanding what binds them all.
Part puzzle, part revenge tale, part ghost story, this book takes us from colonial mansions to ramshackle zoos, from sweaty nightclubs to the jostling seats of motorbikes, from ex-pat flats to sizzling back-alley street carts. Spanning more than fifty years of Vietnamese history and barreling toward an unforgettable conclusion, this is a time-traveling, heart-pounding, border-crossing fever dream of a novel that will haunt you long after the last page.
Violet Kupersmith is the author of the novel BUILD YOUR HOUSE AROUND MY BODY and the short story collection THE FRANGIPANI HOTEL. She previously taught English with the Fulbright Program in the Mekong Delta and has lived in Da Lat and Saigon, Vietnam. She was the 2015-2016 David T.K. Wong fellow at the University of East Anglia, and she is the recipient of a 2022 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Winnie is an American woman living in Vietnam, trying to find herself. There is also Binh, a young woman who lives in Vietnam. How do these two stories intersect?
Build Your House Around My Body should have been the perfect book for me. It had some fantasy, some strong prose, and it felt non-American. However, it was very long, and I didn't understand the ending. The book is told in alternating time periods and involves different characters. Even by the halfway point, I was still wondering what was going on and how all of the characters were related. By the last 90 percent of the book, I had a good idea how all of the characters were related but then I didn't understand the ending at all and felt really disappointed that I actually stuck with this book all the way to the end and didn't give up, only to be letdown with no payoff.
Tip: If you are interested in this book, I would HIGHLY recommend the audiobook version. It was delightful, and I could not have pronounced all of the words without it.
*Thanks, NetGalley, for giving me a free copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest opinion. Please note that the Kindle version of this book kept crashing so I had to read this through the NetGalley app.
2023 Reading Schedule Jan Alice in Wonderland Feb Notes from a Small Island Mar Cloud Atlas Apr On the Road May The Color Purple Jun Bleak House Jul Bridget Jones’s Diary Aug Anna Karenina Sep The Secret History Oct Brave New World Nov A Confederacy of Dunces Dec The Count of Monte Cristo
I had actually started reading this book just before its longlisting as it was published in paperback a few days earlier and I had heard good things about it from a number of my favourite reviewers on Goodreads (particularly Neil, Robert, Wendy and Suzanne).
This is a book where the plot is very difficult to describe – because it is so complex and seemingly diverse and the way in which (at least some of the) complexity is resolved is the key part of the novel.
But at heart (as the chapters of the book are all dated around her Disappearance) we have a Vietnamese American Winnie (the youngest child of her high achieving family) who comes to Vietnam in 2011 with some ill formed plans to teach EFL – something at which she proves almost entirely inept – and to rediscover herself – something at which she initially proves not much better. Her story starts as something of a tale of her survival strategies and of the quirky group of other teachers at the language school, but evolves into something else as she begins to encounter a darker side of Sai Gon.
We also have:
A tale of three childhood friends in the Highlands – two brothers Tan and Long and an orphaned but feisty girl Binh. We first encounter them attempting a crude protection racket in a graveyard but instead having a life altering encounter with the supernatural before following them through the intervening period where Tan is a corrupt police officer in the clutches of a drug dealer (who happens to be a family friend of Winnie’s) and Long an opportunistic administrator at the language school (still haunted – a term which is not accidental - by his loss of friendship with Binh);
And we have a Fortune Teller and his assistants who operate Saigon Spirit Eradication with a specialty in resolving supernatural predicaments;
And a group of Frenchmen in post-war Vietnam – two ex-prison guards looking to establish a rubber plantation and their rapacious and predatory (in all senses) established neighbour;
And in the war years a part French, part Vietnamese boarding school boy accidentally abandoned in a forest
The 1986 temporary, mysterious and somewhat legendary disappearance of the teenage daughter of a wealth family in the Highlands
And that is not to mention: a group of snakes (including a two headed one); the epic journey of a small dog; a mysterious lottery ticket seller and a redemptive rat.
This is a difficult novel to categorise – and that is a very large part of its attraction.
On one level it’s a ghost (or ghosts) story;
On another it’s a horror story – with some shape shifting between sentient smoke, scary snakes and a selection of humans;
On another it’s a multigenerational multifamily tale of how past deeds reverberate to the present;
On another a Murakami style enigmatic story shifted from Tokyo and the Japanese countryside, to the clamour of Hanoi and the countryside of the Vietnam Highlands complete with an ear fixation but with no jazz (thankfully) and the cats replaced by dogs (equally thankfully – albeit there is an extremely triggering episode involving an advert outside a restaurant) and with a much darker side to the organised crime elements, and more scatalogical side to the seedier elements of the underworld (which is perhaps less welcome);
On another a tale of the long aftermath of trauma left behind by colonialism (in this case French colonialism in Vietnam) and war;
On another a story of long planned retribution for male misogyny and violence against female bodies and agency;
On another a book rammed full of metaphor and symbolism (just one small example not mentioned elsewhere in my review, a haunted grove of still bleeding and weeping rubber trees standing in for the trauma of violence and exploitation);
On another a multi-stranded novel in the style David Mitchell or a shifting time period one in the style of Emily St John Mandel;
On another a mystery novel – as we gradually see how the strands and time periods are woven together;
But overall we have something which somehow manages to stir all the plot lines and genres together into a mixture which is always enjoyable and ultimately strangely satisfying
There’s a lot to unpack with this one. This is a multilayered story that takes place in Vietnam, with the main action leading to a climax in 2010. The most convincing part was the strand that followed Winnie, a young American woman of mixed white/Vietnamese ancestry who takes a position as an EFL teacher in Saigon. The rest of the story lines varied between unsuccessful and unconvincing. Orientalist tropes abound, with a fortune teller and unknowable Vietnamese mysticism taking center stage at various points throughout. I'm not convinced that this was an exploration or deconstruction of those tropes, but that may have been the intent. The prose is obnoxiously florid and all of the characters seem to operate with an American sensibility. But for all its faults, I found it tolerable until the last section when everyone started swapping bodies at an alarming rate. At that point, it just became too silly to take seriously.
What a wild ride! It's so tricky trying to sum up Kupersmith's “Build Your House Around My Body” which is part crime novel/part supernatural ghost story but it largely centres around Winnie, a young American woman with Vietnamese heritage who is living as an expat in Saigon. It's a tantalizing puzzle whose narrative moves backwards and forwards in time tracing the disappearances of two young women in two different time periods. However, even with all this switching between stories which gradually connect I always understood where I was and felt extremely engaged with whatever turns the tale took. It's a riveting story in terms of its atmospheric detail with scenes ranging from a team of ghost busters who visit a rubber tree plantation overrun with snakes to graphic instances of bodily transformation. Yet, there's also a side to the book rooted in concrete reality concerning the ways in which women's bodies are handled and controlled, the dilemma of people who don't fit neatly into a single national/racial identity and the reverberating effects of French colonialism in Vietnam. There's a sly sense of humour which is often present in both shocking plot twists and quiet observations about Winnie's experiences. All these aspects of the book are artfully intertwined to creatively build an utterly compelling and gloriously mischievous monster of a novel.
As per usual I was swayed by a pretty cover. I mean, just look at it!
Anyway, as much as I wanted to like Build Your House Around My Body, it left me feeling rather underwhelmed. The narrative seems very much intent—hellbent even—on nauseating its readers, at times adopting a playful tone to do so. Ultimately, the story's relentless efforts to be as abject as possible succeeded only in making me feel nothing for the characters.
The novel's first few chapters were intriguing in a Neil Gaiman kind of way but with each chapter this reminded me more and more of Mariana Enríquez (not my cup of tea). Build Your House Around My Body takes place in Vietnam, shifting between a cast of interconnected characters, and moving from the 1940s to the early 2010s. In 2011 a Vietnamese American woman named Winnie living in Saigon goes missing, less than a year after arriving in Vietnam. Over the course of the novel, we learn of what led her to Saigon and of her stint as an English teacher. A section of the narrative follows the Saigon Spirit Eradication Co. who are called to investigate some 'spooky' ongoings at Vietnamese farm, another introduces us to a Vietnamese French boy sent to a boarding school during colonial rule, and then there are chapters focusing on three childhood friends, Binh, a supposedly feisty young girl and two brothers, Tan and Long, who share the same kind of bland personality. The setting is vividly rendered, that's for sure. We feel the oppressive heat and humidity experienced by the characters and the author has a knack for bringing to life the environments in which her characters are (be it a cemetery, a forest, or a dingy bathroom). The various storylines however don't really flow that well together. The author wastes too much time poking fun at secondary characters that she loses sight of her novel's central figures. Take Winnie. She remains a half-formed character, and while some of her vagueness may be intentional she could have still been fleshed out more. But her chapters often detail the silly routines of her colleagues or try really hard to gross you out through unpleasant descriptions of bodily fluids. Each storyline seems punctuated by slime, sweat, and shit. Which...yeah. The supposed revenge storyline doesn't really come into play until the very end of the novel and by the end, it was glaringly obvious what had taken place in the past. The only section that made me feel somewhat amused was the one featuring the Fortune Teller's First Assistant, but she was at beat a minor character (more of a cameo appearance really). I had the distinct impression that this it the type of novel that is confusing for the sake of being confusing and I never much cared for these types of stories. Not only did the characters feel flat but I felt at a remove from them. The narrative spends so much time ridiculing them or comparing their facial features or appendages to foods/animals that I never saw them as 'real'. To be perfectly honest I don't think I entirely understood what this book was going for. As I said already the novel's raison d'être seems to be that of repulsing the readers. The issues the narrative attempts to touch upon—female agency? maybe? I don't really have a clue—are lost in a murky melange of disparate storylines that don't really come together that well nor do they succeed in bringing the characters or their struggles to life. While the setting was rendered in startlingly detail. the characters—their experiences and their relationships to one another—remain painfully vague.
It’s difficult to know where to start when writing about this book. Perhaps I’ll start by saying I misread the NetGalley description and it isn’t what I expected (although how and why I did this is a mystery because it’s quite clear). It’s not what I would normally read (it’s full of snakes and ghosts and possessions and, well, lots of other stuff like that). However, it seems that this turns out to be a good thing because I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
I could also start by saying that I am on record several times as saying I prefer atmosphere to plot in a novel. And this novel is really all about plot. But that doesn’t seem to matter here. The chapters come at you in non-chronological order and I quickly realised I was going to have to take notes if I wanted to keep any kind of track of what was happening. But then, as the plot thickened, I came to realise that my notes would need to be effectively the same length as the book because there isn’t really a wasted word here.
Finally (I think), I could start by saying that I’ve read a couple of books already this year that have reminded me of the years I spent watching the TV series “Lost��. And this becomes a third example. For one thing, it has a smoke monster! But what it also has is multiple layers of connections: the structure of the book, its jumping from one time to another, is very carefully put together to lead the reader through and keep giving moments where pennies drop and connections are made. In this sense, the book reminded me of reading Emily St John Mandel who is a master of jumping around in time gradually revealing a story. I think it’s probably this that makes the book such a lot of fun to read. And it’s the reason why this review won’t talk about plot at all. Well, one of the reasons: another reason might be that I got a bit confused (in a good way)!
Winnie is American/Vietnamese. We meet her arriving in Saigon. Don’t worry, the rustling in the bushes will be explained later in the book. But this rustling is the first indication that this is going to be a book where things are explained many pages after (or before) they happen in the book. My notes from the book are full of comments about what an event might mean for who a person is and how they are connected to other people. Winnie is fleeing her life in America and seeking a new version of herself in Saigon. She takes a job as an English teacher but, as she can’t really speak Vietnamese and, also, isn’t really interested, it doesn’t go terribly well. As she starts to explore the city, we find ourselves plunging into a weird world of snake symbolism, magical realism and possession.
It’s really not the kind of stuff I would normally read. But it really is a lot of fun!
Alongside this story of the supernatural (cue the smoke monster, but I think I already mentioned that), we read about Vietnamese folklore and the influence/legacy of French colonisation. Somehow, this bizarre mixture works really well.
A thoroughly enjoyable read.
My thanks to the publisher for an ARC via NetGalley.
(4.5) The first thing I want to say about this is that it has a much stronger supernatural element than I expected, and if I’d known that I would, probably, have found and read it much earlier (I don’t feel like the blurb makes it clear at all!) The second thing is that I absolutely loved it. Build Your House Around My Body – an inappropriately twee title, if you ask me – is a wide-ranging novel of love, hate, family legacy and folklore that reminded me of Ghostwritten and The Kingdoms. It’s loosely organised around the disappearance of a young Vietnamese woman, Winnie, from Saigon in 2011, but flicks back and forth between different times and places, alighting on a group of linked characters who include Winnie’s boyfriend and his brother, but also a ghost extermination crew in the 1980s, a pair of French settlers in the 1940s, etc. Kupersmith has that gift of being able to swiftly breathe life into each and every character, and in particular I adored her empathetic portrait of lonely, displaced Winnie and her misadventures at Achievement! International Language Academy. This is a story that’s equally strong on character and plot; suggestions of magic/horror and unexpected connections make it endlessly exciting and surprising. It’s pretty long, but I would have been more than happy to keep reading about this world. One of those books I will be recommending to people in real life as well as online – Violet Kupersmith has a new fan in me.
Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith, set in Vietnam partly Historical Fiction and partly Mystery novel about a missing woman. In 1986, the teenage daughter of a wealthy family gets lost in an abandoned rubber plantation while fleeing her angry father and is forever changed by the experience.
In 2011, a young, unhappy American living in Saigon with her sort-of boyfriend disappears without a trace. The book goes back and forth between two families and two timelines. We get to see The Highlands and then the Ma family in Saigon. The book is not clear with how these two stories are related or intersect with each other.
The first 10% of the book starts off very well and has a lot of dark elements with suspense filled with it. The darkness, the ghosts effect everything was just going well and then suddenly everything becomes very descriptive and nothing makes sense. I did not enjoy the way it ended either.
I unfortunately did not understand what happened at all in this novel. I’m a little sad because as a Vietnamese American I wanted to root for it though I just felt confused. Build Your House Around My Body follows Winnie Nguyen, a Vietnamese American in her 20’s teaching English in Saigon. The novel also describes the story of Binh, the teenage daughter of a wealthy Vietnamese family who flees her angry father. Reading these characters’ stories, I struggled to grasp what was happening in their individual plot lines given the constant back and forth. I also couldn’t see how their stories were related. The prose felt difficult for me to get into which obscured my understanding of the story. Reminds me a bit of Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House - an interesting premise with an execution that left me disappointed.
Ok, I was looking forward to this but actually just found it tiresome and uninvolving: take note of the mentions of body swaps in the blurb because there's far more of this sort of material than I expected .
I should have known I wasn't going to like the prose style when I hit this in the second paragraph: 'The yellow-uniformed taxi drivers, like half-spilled yolks in their cracked-open car doors' - way too try-hard for my taste, and downright silly to compare people to yolks.
So awkward writing on the sentence level and the sort of lazy character description that requires a character list at the front so you don't forget who is who. Just not my type of book, I'm afraid, and the best thing about it is the gorgeous cover.
This is the second of the books I bought after the Women's Prize longlist was announced, and is not the kind of book I would normally read, which means I am probably not the best person to review it objectively.
It is an exploration of modern Vietnam, partly told through the experiences of a half Vietnamese American who comes to Saigon to find herself, but rather more through the tropes of Vietnamese folklore, and more specifically ghosts and spirits. This makes for an exuberant fantasy, which I couldn't believe sufficiently to read as horror, and I was not at all surprised that David Mitchell provided one of the blurb quotes, because the book shares many of the good and bad aspects of Mitchell's own writing.
Ngoan Nguyen, or 'Winnie' as she prefers to be called, is an Vietnamese-American twenty-something who has moved to Saigon to teach English as a second language. She's not a particularly inspired or inspiring teacher and seems to have a malaise regarding her future, and truthfully, her present as well. One day she disappears.
This incident begins the myriad connections that make up this novel of interconnected storylines. We follow Winnie in the months leading up to her mysterious disappearance. We are introduced to a figure known only (for a while) as the Fortune Teller and his assistants, only referred to as First and Second Assistant. The story jumps back in forth in time, across decades, wars, colonization, and tragic incidences. What weaves these narratives all together is Winnie's disappearance as well as another mystery which occurred twenty-five year prior.
Through all of these narratives, Kupersmith seems to be coming to some thesis about the power of the body, not only the native body but particularly that of a woman's body. In many of the stories we see the way that white colonizers overtake the land (and bodies, to which land is often closely linked) and men in power abuse women's bodies. This stripping of autonomy from a large people group has deep impact that reverberates across generations and through the land, and Kupersmith explores this in very strange, supernatural ways.
Honestly, I wasn't expecting this to be as much of a 'horror' book as it is, but I didn't mind! That content was quite unexpected but very compelling. If you are squeamish or fearful of snakes, monsters or just intense scenes, I think you can handle this but just be warned that it's in there. It's never gratuitous; it straddles literary and genre fiction surprisingly well. And it was a lot more plot-based than I was expecting which made this very readable and exciting.
I do think because it was so plot-based and there were so many characters and storylines woven in and out of each chapter, it did get somewhat hard to keep track of who was who and what their motivations were at times. By the end, however, it all came together in an interesting way that satisfied me, even if some of the earlier details were lost on me in the reading process.
I absolutely will read more of Kupersmith in the future. I think this is a solid debut novel that will appeal to many readers, especially those who enjoy something on the darker side and that plays out like a puzzle, keeping you guessing, doling out information and making connections slowly, but landing with a powerful message at the end. I'd love to talk to other readers about this and am excited to see what they think when it's released in July 2021.
Thanks to the publisher for providing me with an eARC via NetGalley. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
I don't know what I expected out of this but it was a read that took some time to get used to. At first I thought I didn't like it that much but each time I put down the book I thought a little about Winnie and was curious to continue. This story was oddly addictive to continue reading, I just had to know what was going to happen next. I can't really compare this story to another book I've read before and maybe that's why I found it so intense and intriguing
Feminist body horror encased in Vietnamese folklore and set in the twisting belly of Saigon and the poisonous coffee fields/rubber plantations of La Kare, both rippling under the effects of colonialism.
I was on the edge of my seat the entire time, mesmerised by the story, haunted by its characters and dazzled by the writing. What an amazing novel debut! Highly recommend!!!!
This is one of the most innovative uses of folklore I've seen in a long time, and I loved it.
Winnie, nee Ngoan, is one of the main characters of this novel, and when readers meet her, she has somewhat recently come to Saigon to either get a better sense of who she is or to lose herself fully. While this part isn't clear at the start of the novel, what is apparent is that she is battling some real demons (pun intended this time) and that she has many more hurdles to overcome before her story can be fully determined. This structure - characters with a lot of damage, secrets, and questions about their identities, and a truly cool infiltration of folklore - grounds the entire work.
The real payoff for me is how the various characters come together and what they signify ultimately about trauma, the construction of the self, and vengeance. Though all of the characters are messy at best, the women identifying folks are holding the moral high ground. Even when they make challenging decisions, they offer reasons for why these choices work within personally established codes. This aspect connects some untraditional characters to traditional heroic models in ways that are - again - utterly creative.
There is so much nuance, detail, and existential questioning here. This is not a novel that should be picked up for mindless summer reading. However, if you are the kind of reader who is willing to put in a little work - keeping the characters, symbols, motives, and archetypal elements aligned - the payoff is outstanding and SAVAGE.
I can't wait to read more from Kupersmith, and if you're the above described reader, this one gets a high rec!
TW: sexual assault, sexual harassment, rape
Added note: I know some folks are particularly sensitive to snakes. Snakes - literal and figurative - abound here. You can judge that part of the book by its cover (just in case).
Special thanks to NetGalley and Random House for this fantastic arc, which I received in exchange for my honest review.
I absolutely loved this book. I thought the style and the way the story was presented to us made it such an interesting read. The timeline jumps around a lot and there's a lot of characters to remember but the way they're named and introduced to us allows us to see a character's younger self and their future before we realise that it's the same character. It's so cleverly done that then when the link is revealed it leaves you thinking "oh that's him! So that's why x, y, z". Even once all the connections have been made though, there are still a lot of characters because of the wide timeline the book takes place over so if you struggle with keeping track of characters or like to have long breaks between reading then maybe this book isn't for you. This book is also one where you reach the end and still have questions that are not fully answered. Usually this annoys me, I have to know exactly how everything relates and know why everything happened or it will just bug me forever. I know some author like to leave things unanswered so the readers can draw their own conclusions but normally that's not for me. But somehow this book managed to make it not annoying. I honestly have no idea how but I think just because I enjoyed the book so much the whole way through that when I reached the end and had questions still it wasn't annoying enough to ruin the book for me. I also think that because the book is so 'supernatural' and it was just one weird unexplainable thing after another that by the time I reached the end it just didn't seem that odd anymore. Overall, I think the book was incredibly cleverly written and no matter how weird the storyline got I just loved it. The way all those characters linked together into one huge story was just fantastic to me. I would definitely recommend giving this book a go and will be keeping an eye out for Violet's next book!
Non sono mica tanto sicura di aver capito la fine....va bene finale aperto, ma questo è spalancato.... Forse avevo alte aspettative e forse mi aspettavo qualcosa che non c'è stato. Bella l'ambientazione vietnamita, le storie di fantasmi, il folklore di un paese a me sconosciuto. Interessanti spunti di riflessione sulla condizione femminile in un paese come Saigon, città più popolosa del Vietnam, sul razzismo, sui problemi familiari, ma non so. Non mi ha convinta al 100%
Anche se il disegno vine via via svelato alla fine ti mancano i tasselli centrali e senza quelli ciao ciao puzzle. Gli ingredienti c'erano tutti, fantasmi, possessioni, riti divinatori, elementi weird ed horror e forse era troppo. Forse non sono stata in grado io di capire appieno questo romanzo, forse sono io sbagliata e non ho trovato ancora il mio posto in queste pagine. Ho ancora troppe domande senza risposta che mi frullano nella testa....tanto fumo che non si dirada
This is a gripping, bizarre story. It has spirits and fantasy elements. The writing is beautiful and often has a wry wit (very wry and completely satisfying), one that is rogue and comes out sideways; sometimes I wondered if a joke had been made at all because it was so subtle and/or cleverly presented.
I was awed by the intricate plotting. Various elements mentioned casually figure later or are repeated, e.g., initials, a hat, etc. The characters are interconnected, their paths crossing--sometimes more than once.
Importantly, I found this read not only engaging but refreshing. For example, ghosts and other "monsters" behave in unexpected ways, likely informed by Vietnamese culture and folklore. I'm reminded of the author's The Frangipani Hotel, where, similarly, the "weird" are innovative and engrossing.
Few favorite quotes (but there were so many I admired and could have included):
"Winne felt better in the sunlight. She let her hand rest on the tree's ropy trunk. The bark was smooth beneath her fingers. These were the breed of strangling ficus that spent two hundred years braiding their bodies around a host tree, killing it while gradually assuming it form. Parasite, doppelganger, sarcophagus. Winnie admired it. What she wished, she reflected dreamily, her whole back now leaning against the tree, was for the same thing to happen to her. For the new self she'd hoped she would become in Saigon--a better self, a banyan self, resilient and impenetrable--to encase Old Winnie completely in its cage-like lattice of roots and then let her wither away inside. She wanted there to be no trace left of that thirteen-year-old girl that Dr. Sang had remembered."
"Sometimes she did genuinely think that she would grow old alone, like the Fortune Teller....First Assistant now had to take her chances with men she met on the internet. More than half of her online messages were from Westerners, but First Assistant didn't respond to those, knowing that her English wasn't good enough to tell the foreigners with fetishes apart from the ones without them...."
"....She tried to model as much of her life as possible after the girls she saw in the popular Korean soap operas she devoured--her pouts; her exaggerated cutesiness; her hair, dyed an orange-brown and cut into bangs that looked like they had been trimmed around an upside down pho bowl, her slightly wooden kisses..."
(3.5) Back in 2014, I reviewed Kupersmith’s debut collection, The Frangipani Hotel. I was held rapt by its ghostly stories of Vietnam, so I was delighted to hear that she had written a debut novel, and it was one of my few correct predictions for the Women’s Prize nominees. The main action takes place between when Winnie – half white and half Vietnamese – arrives in Saigon to teach English in 2010, and when she disappears from the house she shared with her boyfriend of three months, Long, in March 2011. But the timeline darts about to tell a much more expansive story, starting with the Japanese invasion of Vietnam in the 1940s. Each date is given as the number of months or years before or after Winnie’s disappearance.
Winnie starts off living with a great-aunt and cousins, and meets a family friend, Dr. Sang, who’s been experimenting on a hallucinogenic drug made from cobra venom. Long and his brother, Tan, a policeman, were childhood friends with a fearless young woman named Binh – now a vengeful ghost haunting them both. Meanwhile, the Saigon Spirit Eradication Company, led by the Fortune Teller, is called upon to eradicate a ghost – which from time to time seems to inhabit a small dog – from a snake-infested highland estate. These strands are bound to meet, and smoke and snakes wind their way through them all.
I enjoyed Kupersmith’s energetic writing, which reminded me by turns of Nicola Barker, Ned Beauman, Elaine Castillo and Naoise Dolan, and the glimpses of Cambodia and Vietnam we get through meals and motorbike rides. What happens with Belly the dog towards the end is fantastic. But the chronology feels needlessly complex, with the flashbacks to colonial history and even to Binh’s story not adding enough to the narrative. While I’d still like to see Kupersmith make the shortlist, I can recommend her short stories that bit more highly.
Violet Kupersmith’s debut novel, Build Your House Around My Body has a lot of aspects which I gravitate to in a novel. The main one is a plot which consists of different characters and then are joined together by little clues until a full story forms. Thus, the novel becomes a sort puzzle.
The main protagonist of the novel is Winnie, a half States/Vietnamese who decides to move to her mother country to teach English. She soon discovers that the job is not really her thing and experimenting with different houses, partners and lifestyles in order to discover herself.
The plot consists of different elements; a missing rich girl, a French/Vietnamese man who has an unusual talent, a rubber plantation yard, a Frenchman with seven toes, a policeman and snakes, and that is just a small taste of the bizarre characters and situations found in this novel.
What makes Build Your House Around My Body such a fascinating story is that it mutates and changes shape. In some chapters there’s pure horror, some read like a Roald Dahl short story, others give a historical insight to what Vietnam went through from the colonisers to it’s urbanisation. Ultimately I saw the story as a metaphor for women breaking free from the patriarchy and surging ahead. This is especially seen in the novel’s last third. This book pushes boundaries and yet has flowing prose.
Surprising , shocking , playful and never ever predictable Build Your House Around My Body is a fantastic novel that is daring in every single way. This book challenges the reader with it’s twists and turns and at the same time asks the reader to notice the details which link up the different chapters. It also serves as a cautionary to those who violate certain rights (or rites for that matter). I will guarantee that you will come out a changed person. A tall order but with this book, definitely possible.
I'm going to reserve the right to change my mind about this book after my book club meeting but after finishing it today I am left feeling completely befuddled and disappointingly underwhelmed.
So the story revolves around a Vietnamese-American girl named Winnie who moves to Vietnam in an attempt to escape past trauma. A few months in, she disappears without a trace. The novel builds its story around this disappearance as it jumps back and forth through time as it explores themes of female oppression, violence against the female body, Vietnamese folklore, and colonialism. It's a staggering project and to be fair, Build Your House Around My Body is the most creative attempt to explore these themes I've ever encountered. The writing in particular is particularly ambitious with Kupersmith taking aspects of genre fiction like horror and magical realism to craft her narrative.
Like some of the reviews on GoodReads have already suggested, the format of this book takes a page from Emily St. John Mandel and David Mitchell's earlier work with seemingly unrelated narratives coalescing to form a larger interwoven narrative. These pieces, especially early on, are stunning and absorbing stories that on their own really sparkle with beautiful narration and tension.
The problem for me begins about halfway through the novel when the narrative thread that is supposed to spool all these things together doesn't seem to be apparent beyond a couple characters that act as a bridge between the disparate stories. As a reader, I find that with fiction in particular, it's really important to get into the rhythm of the writer. Even if you don't know where a story is going or how it will end, I think it's really important to understand, how the author is going to get you there. In this case, I felt constantly unmoored while reading and kept having the gnawing feeling that perhaps I had missed a crucial piece of information that would set everything clear. This is further exacerbated by the author's choice to present the book in a non-linear fashion with many disparate story lines. Again, on the surface, not necessarily a bad decision, but when your reader still isn't clear on how you're telling your story and is constantly questioning "who is that?" or "was that important?" it can lead to a pretty jarring and difficult reading experience.
Some reviews have likened this novel to the television series Lost, which I think is a wonderfully apt comparison. While the subject matter is completely different, the structural storytelling is incredibly similar. I remember being a really big fan of Lost when it first came out and I devoured the series. Sometimes intentionally confusing, as a viewer, I trusted that the writers and producers of the series would get me to the end and the confusion of watching it would eventually dissipate to a satisfying ending. As the seasons wore on though, when each riddle turned out to be a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, it become exhausting. Characters that are built up to be important are suddenly abandoned and other than the main plot line, nothing else feels like it's reached it's natural narrative conclusion. I felt very much the same with this this novel. While the individual pieces were intriguing, as a complete work of fiction, I found it deeply disappointing and excruciatingly difficult to finish.
On a positive note however, I am intrigued by Violet Kupersmith and what she decides to come out with next. As I said before, this is an incredibly ambitious and creative project and while it may not have been for me, I think there's enough here to celebrate a new diverse voice in contemporary literature. I'm very excited for my book club meeting to discuss this novel further!
This was something else. If you really do not like snakes, don't read this one. There's lots of snakes especially cobras and other venomous ones. And a snake nose man--inserts a snake in his nose. It was very gross.
Y'all this book is a fucking fever dream. I swear to god. This book is mesmerizing, I don't even know what the fuck happened while I was reading, but I swear it felt like it was simultaneously too real and completely whimsical. Kupersmith's ability to interweave narrative story, compelling characters and folktales and culture is masterful. This is next level shit.
I can't say that I particularly "liked" any of the POV characters, but Kupersmith makes us CARE about them. I was invested in them and had to see how each of their stories played out and were interwoven. So many things were truly circular at the end and the more I think about the more I wonder how the fuck did the author do this?? My brain is both amazed and confused.
The imagery of this book was incredible. I truly felt transported to Vietnam. This book made me feel like I was sweating because of the weather descriptions even though I was not. This was so good. I definitely want to read more books like this. But with less snakes preferably. And more queer characters.
Overall, absolutely would recommend, especially the audiobook.
CWs: Blood, body horror (including swapping bodies and possession), drug use/abuse, death, murder, animal cruelty (capturing snakes to take venom, attempted dog kidnapping to take to a restaurant), gore, incest, injury/injury detail, sexual assault, sexual content, sexual violence, snakes, suicide, toxic friendship, violence, xenophobia. Moderate: Misogyny, rape, attempted necrophilia, colonisation, sexism. Minor: eating disorder, cursing, racism.
Decided to try something new and way out of my comfort zone and I don’t think I’ll be doing the same in the foreseeable future. Lol
I must say though that this truly chilling and creepy novel is so wonderfully written that if this is your favourite genre, then you’d have no trouble with immersing yourself in Kupersmith’s strange world where both the figurative and literal ghosts reside.
I'm not sure when, but at some point or other, I became invested in this year's Women's Prize for Fiction. After perusing the longlist, I decided to start here- Build Your House Around My Body, Violet Kupersmith's debut novel. Having published a book of short stories, Kupersmith isn't exactly a new author. Still, as a first novel, I was impressed by how well-written this is. It's the kind of story one would expect from a more established writer.
And what a story it is... Set in Vietnam, the novel is mostly about Winnie, a Vietnamese American woman who mysteriously disappears after moving to Saigon. The chapters all revolve around the disappearance, whether half a century before or a few days after and the story veers off in multiple directions. I can understand that a major criticism of the book is how convoluted it is- indeed, a lot happens. At almost 400 pages, it's a little long, too. Nonetheless, I was impressed by its ambition, and more importantly, I was never bored.
While steeped in Vietnamese history, this isn't a book that is grounded in reality- there's a talking dog, a two-headed snake, a man who can turn himself inside out and become some kind of demonic entity, and spirits that seem to be able to possess people's bodies just by touch. The book is beguiling in its strangeness and is always one step away from outright horror.
The most impressive thing to me about this whole thing, though, is how all the characters and stories eventually all connect, even things that happened 60 years before the main event. As I said, a lot of the book concerns itself with history; it doesn't tell its story in a linear fashion and isn't in a hurry to get to the point.
I admit- this isn't a book that is going to appeal to everyone, and in truth, my rating is closer to a 3.5, but if you like books that are compelling and strange, maybe even a little challenging, and if you don't mind snakes (there are lots and lots of snakes) then I'd recommend this. You just might surprise yourself and end up liking it.
what an absolutely stunning piece of art, i’ve truly never read anything like it.
the writing was so vivid and captivating. i thought this book was going to be super dense but although it was quite long, kupersmith‘s writing style kept me glued to the pages for hours.
i loved exploring all these characters and the ways in which their lives were interconnected. every review mentions this but reading this book felt like slowly piecing together an incredibly complex puzzle full of mysteries (and i can‘t wait to seek out more books like this). this story took me on such a journey and i don‘t think i‘ve been this captivated by a book in a while. i can see why some readers might be put off by the fragmented storytelling and timelines but it worked so perfectly for me; i was invested in every character‘s storyline, especially as they all started to come together at the end.
the incorporation of vietnamese folklore, subtle horror aspects and themes of colonialism worked so well in this setting as well. the author tackled so many themes in such a subtle yet impactful way which i absolutely loved. the ending was a bit bizarre but i thought it was perfect for this story in my opinion.
i honestly can‘t say enough good things about this novel. read it, please :))
A great story, woven so deftly through time. Its nonlinear unfolding made the most perfectly elegant connections between characters, all revealed at just the right moment. There's not a single line, word or punctuation mark I'd change. The author and her editor must have had a great working relationship to make this weaving work so well - I can't imagine it springing whole out of one brain!
As someone who is part Vietnamese I was excited to dig into Build Your House Around My Body and learn more about Vietnamese culture and mythology. This book is a puzzle with many different characters and plot lines. Eventually these disparate storylines converge into one solid picture. Spirits and memory play a large part in this story. I found all of the different characters and storylines to be interesting but Binh was by far my favorite character. She is a fiery character who is fearless and out for revenge. The majority of men in this book are rather unlikable or pathetic apart from the Fortune Teller. This book can be sad and wistful at times but overall I was satisfied with how everything concluded.
Minus a star because it is slow throughout. If you’re looking for something fast paced and thrilling, this is not it. Rather, this a slow burn puzzle of a mystery combining Vietnamese mythology and folklore. It’s a fascinating read and I look forward to reading Kupersmith’s future work.
Wspaniała. Nie mam słów, jak bardzo. Pełna realizmu magicznego, dziwacznego, groteskowego. Złożona, absorbująca, utkana z historii, które przeplatają się błyskotliwie. To książka, będąca majakiem w tropikalnej gorączce, duszącym koszmarem sennym. Nie będę udawać, że absolutnie wszystko zrozumiałam i wszystko wyłapałam, ale z radością do niej wrócę za jakiś czas, połączę kropki bogatsza w znajomość fabuły, znajdę te niesamowite powiązania i zatopię się w tym otępiającym klimacie. Jestem zachwycona. Co za książka ❤️