ANGELINE KEK WRITES — Hauntings, secrets, graveyards — Violet Kupersmith’s debut novel, Build Your House Around My Body (2021) — is an ash-charred sky splattered with these ghastly hues.
Winnie is a twenty-two-year-old Vietnamese American (or Việt Kiều in Vietnamese) woman who sets out for Saigon with nothing but “a passport, two sets of clean clothes, and her own flesh.” Winnie did not have a plan. She knew only her distant great-aunt. Ultimately, the city was her chance for a fresh start.
Packing up her life and moving to Vietnam is the boldest thing Winnie has ever done. As the youngest, Winnie spent her life in the shadows of her successful older siblings, loitering in the background as they built their traditionally revered careers and made their own families. While Winnie resents being the forgettable child, she has grown to find comfort in being invisible, perhaps even a bit too comfortable.
In a foreign city surrounded by nothing she has seen before, Winnie still cannot shake the feeling that she still is the same person: a vague outline of a woman blending into everything else, indistinguishable from any passerby. Every day of her first few months in Saigon, Winnie wanders the streets and alleys, reading another mystery or cheesy romance novel. At the language center where she teaches English, Winnie makes it her mission to avoid other teachers. Winnie’s life, as always, was a canvas of “smallness and loneliness” until she sat next to Long at a drunken company dinner. Long is the first person with whom Winnie shared a laugh throughout the eighty-eight days she has spent absorbing Saigon. When they move in together, he would be the first to discover that she has unceremoniously gone missing.
Build Your House Around My Body lures readers in with each narrative layer. The story weaves in and out of time and space, from modern, bustling, and messy Saigon to the mountains of Ia Kare in the 1950s. Ia Kare is the type of place where the occult finds itself completely at home, cohabiting with and taking hold of human lives. Time ceases to exist in Ia Kare — it has seen the French expatriates colonize the land, only to watch the occupiers run away, the village kids grow up and grow apart, and witness women going missing in the snakes-infested rubber forest.
Build Your House Around My Body serves up irresistible horror and mystery in many ways. However, it is not Kupersmith’s masterful telling of the reality of danger and death but the intricate web of motives, characters, relationships, and time-transcending plot lines that deliver the punch. Indeed not a minimalist novel, Build Your House Around My Body is chock-full of characters, each convoluted, vibrantly colored, and assiduously explored. Each character comes alive, moving through the landscape on their own, their actions unmistakably theirs. This tale ceases to be Winnie’s story, which is precisely what she wants.
Angeline Kek is a book reviewer and contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. As a recent graduate from LMU, she majored in English with a concentration in poetry and creative writing. She is interested in poetry and writings that are unhesitatingly honest.
Edited by book review editor-in-chief, Ella Kelleher.