The twin spectres of colonialism and sexualised violence lurk in the humid Vietnamese air as two-headed snakes slither underfoot in Violet Kupersmith’s marvellous and confounding debut novel. Build Your House Around My Body is structured around the disappearance of 22-year-old Winnie, a Vietnamese American who arrives in Saigon in 2010 to teach English and ostensibly reconnect with her heritage. Yet the self-effacing, anxious Winnie seems more intent on drowning her inhibitions in meaningless sex and lukewarm beer. She feels an affinity neither with her expat colleagues nor the locals, but with the stray dogs who roam her street, “rangy and keen jawed and encrusted with ticks … mixed breeds, like she was, and dirty like she was too”. Neither white nor Asian enough to feel comfortable with either designation, Winnie’s biracial identity renders her a perpetual outsider burdened by microaggressions and self-loathing.
Interwoven with Winnie’s story are spooky vignettes taking place in the days and decades before and after her vanishing. In some of the novel’s most thrilling and original sections, we follow ghost hunters from the Saigon Spirit Eradication Co in 2011, encounter a Vietnamese French schoolboy left on a mountain as the Japanese launch their coup in 1945, and meet a trio of childhood friends in the early 90s – the bland brothers Tan and Long, who pine for the headstrong and rather caricaturish Binh.
The reader gradually gleans connections between the stories in ingenious or sometimes convoluted ways. Kupersmith has been compared to David Mitchell for her novel’s time-hopping cast of characters and sweeping ambition. sin embargo, with its seam of delightfully lurid feminist body horror, Build Your House Around My Body more closely recalls the fabulist work of Kelly Link, Intan Paramaditha y Mariana Enríquez.
The book is certainly not for the squeamish – Kupersmith isn’t afraid to delve into the abject and grotesque, bringing to mind Asian horror movies such as the 2004 Thai film Shutter or the Japanese films Ringu y Dark Water. Haunting the narrative is a sinister smoke monster which might have escaped from the famously perplexing American television series Lost, a smoke that “could not have its own memories, because it was already a memory of a sort”. Perhaps the smoke monster functions as a manifestation of the “irreversibly transfigured” soul of a land riven by colonial brutality. Perhaps the two-headed snake that keeps popping up is a metaphor for personal and political betrayal. It is left to the reader to derive deeper resonances from the body in a well or the soul-swapping little dog – or simply to take these elements at face value and enjoy the funhouse ride.
At their strongest, the novel’s descriptive powers and sense of place are vivid and intoxicating. Published during a time of social distancing and travel restrictions, it effectively transports the reader from eerie forests to rundown zoos, via the pulsating, overcrowded belly of a Saigon club with “membrane-pink walls under hazy aquatic lighting … y [a] pervasive saline aroma from the many sweaty bodies inside”. sin embargo, at other moments the descriptions are overegged or too technical. Framing the disparate strands around Winnie’s disappearance can jolt the reader out of more engaging plotlines, most notably that of the ghost hunters.
Disaffected millennial heroines are everywhere at the moment, with memorable examples in Kylie Whitehead’s Cronenbergian horror novel Absorbed and Raven Leilani’s biting social satire Luster. sin embargo, the maudlin, morose Winnie lacks the droll humour and fleeting self-awareness of Whitehead and Leilani’s protagonists, and it becomes challenging to remain sympathetic with her, much less feel invested in the dragged-out mystery of her disappearance. When Winnie’s strand finally merges with Binh’s, it feels as though the story is just taking off, before reaching a cryptic and rather abrupt conclusion.
In the interview accompanying the text, Kupersmith explains that she wrote Build Your House Around My Body as a kind of revenge story and a way to process “the anger [she] had witnessed against women … the kind of violence that was so accepted that it was just something ordinary”. She loves writing about ghosts because “they can claim all the agency and power that was denied to them while they were still alive”. This theme of justice and retribution is buried under the weight of a somewhat overcomplicated polyphonic narrative – Kupersmith is a naturally talented storyteller, but I do wonder if the cumulative effect of the novel would have been stronger if the strands were streamlined and made easier to follow. Nonetheless, an excess of ideas and imagination is hardly a bad thing for a novelist; this is a hugely impressive debut that signals even greater things to come.