Part puzzle, part revenge tale, part ghost story, this ingenious novel spins half a century of Vietnamese history and folklore into “a thrilling read, acrobatic and filled with verve” (The New York Times Editors’ Choice).
FINALIST FOR THE CENTER FOR FICTION’S FIRST NOVEL PRIZE • LONGLISTED FOR THE WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION • ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The New York Times Book Review, NPR, Good Housekeeping, Kirkus Reviews
“Fiction as daring and accomplished as Violet Kupersmith’s first novel reignites my love of the form and its kaleidoscopic possibilities.”—David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas
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.
Build Your House Around My Body 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.
Kupersmith's exceptional debut novel (after the collection The Frangipani Hotel) offers profound and original insight on Vietnam's tortured history. Twenty-two-year-old Winnie, a mixed-race American woman, signs up to teach English in Saigon in an attempt to connect with the Vietnamese part of her heritage, and essentially dooms herself to failure: "her life would continue to be as empty as her luggage, wherever she went," Kupersmith writes. Winnie figures out how to placate her students by helping them learn American terms such as "booty call" and "loaded nachos," and enters a more or less satisfactory romantic relationship with a fellow teacher, but then disappears. At this point, the chapters range widely beyond Winnie's present-day story to the days, months, and years before and after her disappearance. These vivid vignettes—horrifying and hilarious by turns—are marvelously written and include nightmarish scenes of immolation, two-headed snakes, and other accounts of disappearing young women, as well as a memorable team of ghost hunters and a soul-swapping dog. The multiple pages of maps and dramatis personae at the novel's opening help ground the reader through this disorienting but captivating opus, until the clues and characters coalesce in a way that's both surprising and satisfying. Magic can be both benevolent and monstrous in Kupersmith's work, and here she indelibly illustrates the ways in which Vietnam's legacies of colonialism, war, and violence against women continue to haunt. This more than fulfills the promise of her first book.