Build Your House Around My Body, by Violet Kupersmith

I thought I knew what to expect from Violet Kupersmith’s astounding novel, Build Your House Around My Body. The first chapters set up two disappearances, a little more than twenty years apart. Narrative law led me to think that, first, the two disappearances would be linked and, second, that there would be a detective character who would sleuth out everyone’s secrets and figure out what happened. The first assumption turned out to be true. The second assumption was blown out of the water as the pace started to pick up and things started to get weird. By the end of the novel, I was so hooked that I wanted more pages to explore the world Kupersmith created from everyday Vietnamese life and a heavy dose of the supernatural.

The first disappearance we learn about—and the one that provides a central reference point in the timeline of Build Your House Around My Body—takes place in Saigon, in 2011. Vietnamese American woman Winnie has come to Saigon looking for something. She takes a job teaching English, but she’s terrible at it. When she’s not leading “advanced conversation” sessions (defining American slang), Winnie drifts around the city. She’d had the vague notion that she would fit in better in Vietnam, but here she gets side-eye for being too American. (The reverse was true in the United States.) Although she manages to make some (one) friend in Saigon, Winnie never really makes a life. Someone always has to take care of her. It’s not hard to believe that Winnie would go missing in the city, where everyone knows a lot more than the unambitious, naïve American.

Kupersmith introduces many characters during the slow ramp-up of the plot. We meet the very sweet man, Long, who tries to take care of Winnie; a fortune teller who might actually know how to harness the supernatural; Long’s brother, a reluctantly corrupt police officer; and Long’s old friend in Đà Lạt, the tough and unpredictable Binh. The plot also jumps from 2011 to 1986 to the 1940s and back, all circling around what happens to Winnie and other characters in 2011. The only connection at first is Long, but more links start to form between the characters. I don’t want to say too much about what happens in this book. The reveal is so magical and original that I don’t want to ruin it for other readers. The slow start is more than made up for by the last third or so. Once the links started to tighten, I couldn’t put the book down. I had to know what was going on.

I’ve written before, in other reviews, about books that walk the line between the possibly supernatural and the rational explanation. I love the tension that comes from characters and plots walking that line until the reveal resolves it. It’s fiction, so either possibility is likely. Build Your House Around My Body falls off that line early. Because I know so little about Vietnamese folklore and literature, I had no clue what was coming. (Kupersmith is brilliant at dropping clues that, in retrospect, perfectly foreshadow what happens later. I love those hints.) Like Winnie, whose adopted parents never bothered to tell her about her cultural heritage, we have to wade into a world with subtext and context that we can sense, but not understand. I love a book that not only gives me a wonderfully original plot but also one that introduces me to new lore.

Readers who like books that do new and original things with genre fiction will find a lot to like—especially readers who are used to keeping a sharp eye on everything and can navigate a densely interwoven timeline. I see Build Your House Around My Body as the kind of book that you read, hand to another reader, then eagerly wait for them to finish it so that you can have conversations that go: “Did you notice—?” “Yes! And how it lead to—” “And then—!” “I know! So amazing!”

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Valley of Love, Đà Lạt, Vietnam (Image via Wikicommons)

The Mountains Sing, by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

In the United States, there is a very clear narrative about the Vietnam War. We learn about the politicians and their “domino theory,” who took over a colonial war from the French, while a growing anti-war movement works to end the conflict. We learn about soldiers who are sent to die and are then called baby-killers when they come back. Sometimes, we even learn about the long lasting effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and Agent Orange and the Boat People who came to America after the fall of Saigon. Only rarely do we ever learn about the experience of the Vietnamese people, who lived through decades of warfare while decisions about their country’s future are made on other continents. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s novel, The Mountains Sing, is the first time I can recall seeing a full story narrated by Vietnamese people and set completely in Vietnam.

Hương serves as a narrator and audience for The Mountains Sing. She narrates the chapters that see her and her grandmother trying to survive and rebuild after American bombings of Hanoi. Her parents and her uncles are all in the south, fighting the Americans and the South Vietnamese army. In other chapters, Hương listens to her grandmother, Diện Lan, as she relates the family history from 1942 to 1972. Once upon a time, the Trần family were well off. They owned farmland in Nghệ An, southwest of Hanoi. They worked the land with their tenant farmers and life was good…until World War II broke out and the Japanese invaded. Although Diện Lan traces her bad luck to her own fortune (as told to her by a palmist), it almost seems like the universe is out to get all of the Trầns. Over the next two decades, Diện Lan loses her parents, barely survives a famine and the Land Reform—only to see her children scattered across the country during what we call the Vietnam War and the North Vietnamese government call the War of Resistance Against the Americans.

The Mountains Sing and Diện Lan move back and forth through time. We see family members lash out at each other before Diện Lan or Hương’s mother or one of her uncles takes us back through the years to reveal what happened to that family member. So, not only does this novel show westerners a side of history we are woefully uneducated about, The Mountains Sing is also a story of redemption, forgiveness, reunion, and a lot of trauma. I loved that Nguyễn is full of complications. Family members can forgive, but they don’t forget. Other family members show us how the dictates of the government drove wedges between family members. Members of the Trần family frequently have to wrestle with the question of siding with their family or bowing to rules about shunning any kind of capitalism (Diện Lan makes money as a trader instead of “honest” work) or ostracising family members who got fought for South Vietnam.

I have a few tiny quibbles about occasional slapdash scene setting and word choice (the author is weirdly fond of the word exquisite). Truth be told, this book could have been longer. There is so much in this book and so many characters that I wish Nguyễn had settled into the narrative a bit more, so that some parts didn’t feel so rushed and so that the setting could feel more lived-in. These quibbles aside, I was fascinated by The Mountains Sing. I’m so glad to finally have a chance to see this history from the other side, the one we Americans were never really told about. It is incredible what the Trầns—and families like them—lived through.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Old Hanoi, undated postcard (Image via Wikicommons)

The Volunteer, by Salvatore Scibona

Names play a big role in The Volunteer by Salvatore Scibona. They represent identity, heritage, and belonging for the three men at the heart of this novel. When these men are asked, “Who are you?” They might pause before they give their names because the names on their documents aren’t really who they are. Tilly has been living under an assumed name since the mid 1970s. Elroy was given a name by the members of a commune and was never told who his real father was. Willy was given his name by a German priest after being taken in after his father abandoned him in Germany. The Volunteer tells Tilly’s story, show us how misconceptions and bad decisions can haunt men for the rest of their lives.

Tilly was once called Vollie Frade. Vollie comes from Volunteer, his parents’ nickname for him. Vollie was born late in his parents’ lives. As their only child, the Frades didn’t know what to do with their son once he hit his teenage years. In a fit of pique or rebellion after an argument over buying a fast car, Vollie joins in the army and is shipped out to Vietnam post haste. Vollie has to change his name when he gets pulled into illegal, covert action in Cambodia. All of Vollie’s decisions made sense to him at the time. Why shouldn’t he buy a car with his own money? Why shouldn’t he reenlist? But when Vollie’s father dies and he couldn’t bring himself to go back to Iowa, Vollie becomes Tilly in an effort to completely start over with a new name, even if he has to do it by participating in even more illegal, covert action (stateside this time). Tilly has a complicated biography. It gives a woman at the Veterans Administration fits later on when Tilly’s adopted son signs him up to get medical care and benefits.

There are patterns in The Volunteer, but they can be hard to spot as Tilly, Elroy (Tilly’s adopted son), and Willy’s (Elroy’s biological son) lives play out with eloquent variety. Bad decisions are compounded because each man can’t help but push people away or committing acts of violence or refusing to cooperate at every turn. This sounds bleak—and a lot of this novel is bleak—but there was always the hope of redemption and happiness if only the men can bring themselves to reach out to another. We even get to see a bit of this brief happiness (tragically too brief one instance), which helps leaven the sadness. And it ends with a moment of hope, when Willy literally reaches out to a woman to save her from a terrible accident; we can leave The Volunteer thinking that this tangled, strange family might get things right after three generations. We can also leave the book thinking that, if we can’t have a family with our biological kin, perhaps we can make a new one with people who help fulfill elementary psychological needs.

The Volunteer might strike some people as overlong. There are several stretches where Scibona takes us on tangents that last for many pages, based on relatively small connections to the lives of the three men. There are also passages where Scibona breezes through years of Tilly, Elroy, and Willy’s lives (included one where everything happens in the passive voice). The rest of the book—and Tilly himself—more than made up for it, I think. I found this book to be a fascinating exploration of the male psyche, identity, guilt, makeshift father-son relationships, and much more. Readers who love psychological character studies will enjoy this book. There is so much to talk about in The Volunteer, so I would also recommend this book to book groups who have a taste for tragedy or who like to tease out tricky ethical situations.

The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

Graham Greene’s masterly novel, The Quiet American, is the kind of novel that I find impossible not to read as an allegory. In this brief, devastating novel, two men—one British and one American—fight for the affections of a Vietnamese woman without really considering her wishes or feelings. The woman rarely gets to speak while the two men debate what’s best for her and her country in either deep cynicism (the Briton) or naive idealism (the American). This novel is not just allegory. It is also the story of a man wrestling with his conscience and his long commitment to neutrality, which is harder to maintain as conditions grow more violent.

The Quiet American is set in the mid-1950s in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), when the French were still fighting to hang on to their colony and Americans were just barely getting involved in the escalating conflict. Thomas Fowler has been in the city for two years, working as a reporter for a British newspaper. He is content. He has a mistress, Phuong, who cares for his needs. His job is not difficult, as much of what he writes is delivered and press conferences and anything controversial is censored before it leaves the country. The French regime is beginning to crumble around him, but Fowler isn’t worried about much. (The opium might be helping with that. It’s hard to say for sure.) The arrival of American Alden Pyle throws Fowler’s carefully maintained status quo off its axis. Pyle decides, after one meeting, that he is in love with Phuong and is determined to marry her.

Pyle is a fascinating character. I’ve met cynical, detached-but-sensitive characters like Fowler before. I’m comfortable with his blasé view of the political and social landscape. But Pyle is another story entirely. Pyle comes straight from Boston, armed with books by armchair political theorists who tell him that Democracy is something everyone should have, especially when Communism is lurking about. If asked, I don’t know that Pyle would be able to give clear definitions of either. He’s been taught that Democracy is the ideal and the Communism is evil. Even when he’s confronted with evidence that the situation in Vietnam is complicated and that his version of Democracy is just a different flavor of colonialism, Pyle refuses to learn. Pyle horrified me as often as I pitied him for his rigid world view.

The Quiet American has been on my to-read shelf for a long time. It’s been lauded as a mid-twentieth century classic and I am happy to report that it absolutely deserves its reputation. It hasn’t lost any of its punch in the sixty-four years since it was published. Its commentary on imperialism, interventionism, paternalism, and independence are just as effective (and important) as they were in 1955. I strongly recommend this for historical fiction readers who like books that carry a timeless message. Even for readers who don’t want too much moralizing, this novel is a brilliant study of two men in a foreign country who approach life from very different angles. The Quiet American, if nothing else, is a terrific read for its depiction of what happens when pragmatism and idealism collide.

Mãn, by Kim Thúy

There are some writers who make me think of the way painters work more than anything else. These kind of writers are not so much interested in plot as they are about building up characters or settings with layers of small details like Seurat or Monet. And, just like Impressionist paintings, books by painterly writers have to be viewed both closely and from a distance. Looking closely reveals details about how the writer is working; looking from a distance provides context. Without both perspectives, the meaning of the work gets lost. I’ve been thinking about this metaphor (which I know still needs work) since I finished reading Kim Thúy’s Mãn (translated by Sheila Fischman) last night. The novel is composed in very short chapters, most of them vignettes, that cover the life of the eponymous protagonist. These chapters reveal tensions in culture, gender, history, love, family, and fidelity.

Mãn tells us at the beginning of the book that she had three mothers. Mãn’s third mother, Maman, is a recurring figure throughout the book because she taught Mãn how to be a good Vietnamese girl, wife, and mother according to troubled upbringing. Everything Mãn is taught to be comes from her name:

[Mãn] means “perfectly fulfilled,” or “may there be nothing left to desire,” or “may all wishes be granted.” I can ask for nothing because my name imposes on me that state of satisfaction and satiety. (27*)

Maman grew up in a cruel home and came of age during the Vietnam War. It’s easy to understand that Maman wishes that her child, who she found in a field, would have everything she could ever ask for. And yet, Maman grew up in such a dangerous time that she thought it best to teach Mãn to be invisible but useful—as Mãn frequently describes herself.

We see Mãn enter an arranged marriage to an older emigré who runs a Vietnamese restaurant in Montreal. There, Mãn discovers that she has a talent for cooking. Her dishes remind her husband’s customers of what they left behind in Vietnam then, as her popularity grows, introduces Canadians to Vietnamese cuisine. With the help of a friend with much more ambition, Mãn becomes a successful caterer, cookbook author, and chef.

The more I read, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. No fictional character has that much good luck. And I was right. Mãn’s crisis comes when she suddenly falls in love with a biracial Vietnamese orphan in Paris. This relationship makes her both ecstatically happy and miserably lonely because it is so different from her relationships with her family. Mãn, even with all her success, kept up her habits of being invisible but useful. She gives, organizes, arranges, so that her husband and family want for nothing. They never have to ask. This is how Mãn was taught to love. But falling in love with Luc just showed her that everyone in her life is taking more from her than they are giving in return.

Part of what astonished me about this novel was the way that Thúy explores what happens when cultures are disrupted by war or transplantation to another continent. A lot of the meaning is lost. The subtext just disappears. For example, Mãn and Maman do not feel the need to explicitly show physical affection or say they love each other. Instead, Mãn tells us things like this:

[None] of the letters I’d written to Maman contained the three words “I miss you” or mentioned that I suffered from her absence. I had described to her the staggering number of shampoo brands in just one store because I hoped to pour water over her soapy hair again while she bent her head over the aluminum basin that we used for washing clothes. (104)

Passages like this one had me misty-eyed at the way mother and daughter could so subtly communicate their love for each other. Mãn does not have this with her husband, because he spent so much of his life outside of Vietnam. We don’t get to hear his perspective, but I suspect he thinks he won the matrimonial lottery with Mãn.

I found Mãn hauntingly beautiful. No words are wasted in this brief novel. I had to work to slow down and absorb what the book was trying to tell me instead of gobbling down the words the way I usually do. Thúy is simply brilliant.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for readers who need to be reminded that mother-daughter relationships should be nurtured.

* Quotes are from the 2014 Random House kindle edition.