Title/Author: Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith
Publisher: Random House
In a nutshell (Publisher):
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.
It’s almost end of the year, and I have yet to come across at least 10 books I really love. My 2020 scored much better in terms of brilliant books. This year, not so. UNTIL NOW, because I. Absolutely. ENJOYED. This. Book! Definitely adding this to my top 10 of 2021.
This story spanned more than 70 years of Vietnam history – from the French war in 1950s, World War II, to present day Vietnam. The timeline jumped back and forth between 1940’s and 2000’s and followed two missing women, although focusing more on Winnie, an American-Vietnamese and the daughter of a wealthy Vietnamese family, who disappeared in 1986 and 2011 respectively.
A year before she went missing, twenty-two-year-old Winnie, who, with a ‘passport, two sets of clean clothes and her own flesh’, had just arrived in Vietnam, to find herself and reconnect to her Vietnamese roots. She took on a job as an English teacher at Achievement! International Language Academy, and lived with a colleague until finally settling with Long, the staff administrator. Then we have the young daughter of the wealthy family who went missing, but was ultimately found by Fortune Teller, although she was never the same after the incident.
We meet a cast of colorful characters such as Fortune Teller, whom you must pay special attention to, as he appeared quite frequently in the book. After being fallen prey to a prank from his friends at school, something befell upon him and he in turn had some sort of supernatural powers. Using it to his benefit, he formed a company called Saigon Spirit Eradication and had First Assistant and Second Assistant as his staff.
Then we have the three friends, Binh, and the two brothers Long and Tan Phan, whom had their first supernatural encounter at the very start of this novel; Dr. Song and The Worm who operated at The Club, and even a grandmother who had a special sight whose eyes can “drift off my face and go wherever I want them to go.” All these characters, as independent and unrelated as they seemed to be, will, at one point in the story, connect to one another. There were many other characters that I didn’t mention but played a role in the story.
The reader would be led along different paths and threads, following Winnie, a biracial who felt neither Vietnamese nor American (she was even told by Long because ‘polite Vietnamese girls don’t drink coffee’), who later had a strange affinity to a stray dog she encountered, ‘mixed breeds, like she was, and dirty like she was too’. Then we get bits and pieces of story of the other missing girl. Not forgetting Fortune Teller and the three best friends whose friendship fell apart and what happened to them thereafter. Weaving alongside these stories, the reader would also see the impact of colonization on Vietnam’s land and women. The one part that really got me was what took place in The Highlands (62 years before the disappearance). That Louis guy was disgusting and what he had done to the women and animals, and how he treated them were unthinkable!
Besides the missing girls, there was also drugs, haunted jungles, possessed women (and dog), and loose threads going this way and that, which didn’t seem to lead to anywhere, that one might begin to question, is this part or this character important? If things like this annoy you, then this might not be for you. But stuff like that interest me, like putting together pieces of a puzzle!
The main reason I enjoyed this book (its top-notch writing goes without saying), wasn’t so much of its message (colonization, violation of women’s bodies, possession of lands and homes, racism and identity) but its genius plotting, of how the dots started to gradually connect and how the story unraveled as I turned the pages. Its brilliant storytelling also made this book unputdownable.
To give you a sense of her writing, here’s one of my favorite passages from the book:
Winnie 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.”Build Your House Around My Body, pg 39
And to give you a sense of how ‘horrifying’ some parts may be, here’s a passage:
The children waited. Then they realized that the yawn was not stopping; the man’s mouth opened all the way, and then his lower jaw unhinged and kept opening. The skin on his face grew taut and his lips shrank to a thin line, exposing the entirety of his nicotine-yellowed teeth and mottled pink-and-white gums as the mandible dropped farther, and father, down past the neck to the collarbone.
“The hole in the man’s face finally stopped growing when it was the size of a large papaya and the base of his chin was resting at mid sternum.”Build Your House Around My Body, pg 23-24
Kupersmith is a genius. I can only imagine her storyboard and how she connected the characters, with different names and nicknames and then let their stories go back and forth and yet kept this reader on track. (I rarely had to refer to the name list provided)
I’d have given this a five-star read if not for:
- the abrupt, hurried ending.
- the part about Asian eating animals (p171). It reminded me of an incident and it almost made me want to stop reading. For those who aren’t aware, many of us Asians don’t eat snakes, dogs, lizards or any of those exotic animals. I didn’t understand why Kupersmith had to include this. Maybe it was written to show how some Americans make fun of what they believe to be an ‘Asian thing’. I’d appreciated it if there was at least one character tell American Alex that it was racist.
Now that’s said, I must also add that this book has received many polarized reviews. This is a slow-paced book that requires a little bit of work from the reader. And its polyphonic storytelling might make the story hard to follow. But if you do invest your time in it, you’d be pleasantly surprised by how satisfying it is when you’ve figured out the puzzle and the connection to all its characters.
All in all, this was really an ‘enjoyable’ read for me despite the serious themes that surrounded it.
If you’re looking for a fun ride and to explore the world of Vietnamese folklore, magical realism with some horror, history and mystery mixed in, then pick this one up! Just beware of the two-headed snake. It could be lurking anywhere.Tweet
Have you read this book? What did you think? If you haven’t, do you intend to? Please share with me your thought!