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Build Your House Around My Body
Cover of Build Your House Around My Body
Build Your House Around My Body
A Novel
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Part puzzle, part revenge tale, part ghost story, this ingenious novel spins half a century of Vietnamese history and folklore into “a thrilling read, acrobatic and filled with verve” (The...
Part puzzle, part revenge tale, part ghost story, this ingenious novel spins half a century of Vietnamese history and folklore into “a thrilling read, acrobatic and filled with verve” (The...
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  • Part puzzle, part revenge tale, part ghost story, this ingenious novel spins half a century of Vietnamese history and folklore into “a thrilling read, acrobatic and filled with verve” (The New York Times).
     
    FINALIST FOR THE CENTER FOR FICTION’S FIRST NOVEL PRIZE • ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: The New York Times Book Review, NPR, and Kirkus Reviews • “Fiction as daring and accomplished as Violet Kupersmith’s first novel reignites my love of the form and its kaleidoscopic possibilities.”—David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas

    Two young women go missing decades apart. Both are fearless, both are lost. And both will have their revenge.

    1986
    : The teenage daughter of a wealthy Vietnamese family loses her way in an abandoned rubber plantation while fleeing her angry father and is forever changed. 

    2011
    : A young, unhappy Vietnamese American woman disappears from her new home in Saigon without a trace. 

    The fates of these two women are inescapably linked, bound together by past generations, by ghosts and ancestors, by the history of possessed bodies and possessed lands. Alongside them, we meet a young boy who is sent to a boarding school for the métis children of French expatriates, just before Vietnam declares its independence from colonial rule; two Frenchmen who are trying to start a business with the Vietnam War on the horizon; and the employees of the Saigon Spirit Eradication Co., who find themselves investigating strange occurrences in a farmhouse on the edge of a forest. Each new character and timeline brings us one step closer to understanding what binds them all. 

    Build Your House Around My Body takes us from colonial mansions to ramshackle zoos, from sweaty nightclubs to the jostling seats of motorbikes, from ex-pat flats to sizzling back-alley street carts. Spanning more than fifty years of Vietnamese history and barreling toward an unforgettable conclusion, this is a time-traveling, heart-pounding, border-crossing fever dream of a novel that will haunt you long after the last page.

Excerpts-

  • From the cover June 2010, Saigon, nine months before Winnie’s disappearance

    Something was moving in the shrubs in front of Tan Son Nhat Airport. It was one in the morning, and Winnie had stepped off a plane twenty minutes ago. Her connecting flight had been held up by a summer thunderstorm in Hong Kong and now her plans were all awry from the start.

    Leaving the air-conditioning of the baggage claim, she had felt her edges soften immediately in the humidity. The yellow-uniformed taxi drivers, like half-spilled yolks in their cracked-open car doors, stretched out their necks in unison as they followed the movements of the new passengers exiting the airport. Winnie had seen one of them stare at her, and when she accidentally returned his eye contact he opened his mouth to call out before abruptly closing it again, and Winnie knew he was debating whether to use Vietnamese or English on her. She’d turned and started walking away from the taxi queue before she could hear his final verdict.

    And now she was standing in the dark, on the shorn grass of the small, half-neglected greenery by the motorbike parking lot, watching the leaves on this low bush quivering strangely. Just one bush—the rest of the shrubbery was still, and there was no discernible wind that could be responsible for the shaking. She contemplated finding something to prod it with, wondering what would come out if she did, wondering what she should do now.

    Winnie leaned on the handle of her suitcase. She was supposed to be staying at the house of a great-aunt she’d never met before but doubted that the old woman was up at this hour or would appreciate Winnie arriving at her home in the middle of the night. All Winnie had been told about the great-aunt was that she was a former nun, was still deeply devout and, if she missed her five a.m. mass, deeply irritable.

    Her curiosity had gotten the better of her: Winnie took a step toward the rustling shrub and bent over to pull back a branch and peer inside. But before her hand could make contact with it, she heard a sudden, low hiss from somewhere within the leafy shadows, a sound like an angry radiator. Winnie jerked away. It could have just been a jet-lagged auditory hallucination, but if it was not, it would be better if she and whatever was inside the bush remained strangers to each other. Winnie quickly turned and began dragging her suitcase toward the smeary yellow streetlights of Tan Binh.

    The farther she got from the airport the cheaper the hotels would be, so she planned to walk for at least ten blocks. Whenever she passed a hotel that still had lights on, she would look into its lobby and see how big its couches were in order to determine whether or not it was too expensive. The pay-by-the-hour sex motel was fully illuminated and conspicuously couchless, but it had a yawning motorbike guard sitting on a stool and a woman with her hair set in pink rollers behind a desk and a large, glass-paned refrigerator full of beer. Winnie didn’t see the sign advertising an hourly rate or the condoms for sale next to bags of beef jerky on top of the fridge until she was already halfway through the door and the woman in curlers raised an eyebrow at her. But when she hastily calculated that it would cost her less than five dollars to have a room until six in the morning, she decided to stay. She would have plenty of cash left over for the taxi to her great-aunt’s house, and she would arrive right as the old woman was returning from church.

    The receptionist took Winnie’s passport, gave her a room key, and sold her an overpriced can of 333 from the beer fridge and a bag of jerky. The motorbike guard...

Reviews-

  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from May 10, 2021
    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.

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Build Your House Around My Body
Build Your House Around My Body
A Novel
Violet Kupersmith
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