cover image Build Your House Around My Body

Build Your House Around My Body

Violet Kupersmith. Random House, $27 (400p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9332-5

Kupersmith’s exceptional debut novel (after the collection The Frangipani Hotel) offers profound and original insight on Vietnam’s tortured history. Twenty-two-year-old Winnie, a mixed-race American woman, signs up to teach English in Saigon in an attempt to connect with the Vietnamese part of her heritage, and essentially dooms herself to failure: “her life would continue to be as empty as her luggage, wherever she went,” Kupersmith writes. Winnie figures out how to placate her students by helping them learn American terms such as “booty call” and “loaded nachos,” and enters a more or less satisfactory romantic relationship with a fellow teacher, but then disappears. At this point, the chapters range widely beyond Winnie’s present-day story to the days, months, and years before and after her disappearance. These vivid vignettes—horrifying and hilarious by turns—are marvelously written and include nightmarish scenes of immolation, two-headed snakes, and other accounts of disappearing young women, as well as a memorable team of ghost hunters and a soul-swapping dog. The multiple pages of maps and dramatis personae at the novel’s opening help ground the reader through this disorienting but captivating opus, until the clues and characters coalesce in a way that’s both surprising and satisfying. Magic can be both benevolent and monstrous in Kupersmith’s work, and here she indelibly illustrates the ways in which Vietnam’s legacies of colonialism, war, and violence against women continue to haunt. This more than fulfills the promise of her first book. (July)