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.