One of the biggest thrills in reading a book with a really good twist is going back and spotting the clues—or red herrings—on the second reading. There are no twists of the traditional sort in Violet Kupersmith’s debut novel, Build Your House Around My Body, but there are a stack of stories that weave themselves around each other before ultimately tying a knot that can only truly be appreciated on the reread.
Winnie arrives in Saigon with a suitcase much too large for the meager possessions she brought with her from the U.S. But she’s after a fresh start, after all, and she figures buying new things in this new country will help bring a new version of herself to the surface. In the U.S., her Vietnamese heritage from her father’s side made her stand out’ here, her American mother’s blood and her poor Vietnamese cements her as a foreigner, both to her students and to the other teachers at the English school where she’s come to teach. Her days are dull and her nights are sleepless. And then, nine months after she steps out of the airport into that sweltering Saigon night, Winnie vanishes.
As Winnie slogs through the city and her new life, other stories spin around her. A corrupt policeman tries to protect himself from the ghost hunting him; a cadet in the last days of World War II gets lost in the woods and emerges not quite himself; a pair of Frenchmen in the 1950s try to start a rubber plantation, which goes predictably poorly but in unpredictable ways; a little dog makes a harrowing journey from the highlands of Vietnam to Saigon; and a pair of brothers become closer as they make friends with a neighbor girl, and then are wedged apart by their growing feelings for her. Although Winnie isn’t involved in any of these secondary stories, the create the set of dominos that lead to her disappearance.
There’s a lot to keep track of in Build Your House, and Kupersmith tells little of it linearly. The only continuity between these stories, seemingly, is that they are tied to the day of Winnie’s disappearance: Nine months before the disappearance, the day of the disappearance, three days after the disappearance, sixty-nine years before the disappearance. This approach is initially so disorienting that I nearly gave up on the book. I didn’t need to power through for long, though, before the disparate revealed themselves to be puzzle pieces. Reading became both an exploration of the story and a hunt for the next clue to the larger narrative, much like How High We Go in the Dark. When I finished the book, I immediately started it over to catch details I had missed the first time.
Although Winnie’s disappearance is ostensibly the focus of the book, this is more a story of revenge more than sixty years in the making that Winnie happens to stumble into. Within the larger story of revenge are smaller slights and revenges, but also stories about love and apathy, control and oppression, all as varied, and at times chaotic, as Vietnam’s history in the twentieth century. In a way, Winnie’s disappearance is caused by colonialism; in a way, she disappears because an employee didn’t tell his boss about a dog in the house.
Meanwhile, she exists wholly ignorant of the tidal wave coming to sweep her away. In Winnie, Kupersmith has created a character who isn’t exactly likable—she doesn’t even like herself—but as a person in her early 20s who feels adrift even within her own mind, Winnie is uncomfortably relatable. Her attempts to find herself in a country halfway around the world may be more extreme than the lengths most go to, but dragging herself to her menial job and trying desperately to create a more interesting version of herself? Isn’t that just the millennial experience?
The fact that so many stories combine across so many years to make one little expat disappear makes Build Your House Around My Body a sprawling and, yes, sometimes confusing tale. But it’s also a reminder of the forces far out of control that connect, and affect, us. Any way you cut it—as a ghost story, a revenge tale, a sampler of twentieth-century rural Vietnamese narratives, another entry into millennial ennui literature—Kupersmith delivers a brilliantly rendered and deftly detailed story that rewards a careful reader.