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Build Your House Around My Body

Review

Build Your House Around My Body

The end of each chapter in BUILD YOUR HOUSE AROUND MY BODY presents a conflict for readers that all the best novels possess --- it’s difficult to continue reading, but the temptation is too high not to keep turning pages. Each chapter disorients and disturbs but also entices.

Set mostly in post-war Vietnam, the airport bookstore plot of “girl trying to find herself in an unfamiliar land and dead-end job” is strung up and gouged in Violet Kupersmith’s sophomore effort. Vietnamese American protagonist Ngoan “Winnie” Nguyen, whose March 2011 disappearance is the focal point of the novel’s unchronological chapters, does little to find her passions and self-esteem. Some thing finds her first.

"Kupersmith’s ability to balance character development with a thickening plot, conflict and suspense is extraordinary."

Jumping in time between the 1940s and the 2000s, and between Saigon and rural Vietnam, Winnie’s protagonist status is almost halved by the supernatural entities that make the locals superstitious and afraid. There seem to be two shrouds of smoke whenever Kupersmith’s chapters detail the paranormal. Some descriptions shed light on what the haunting forces are and want, but we can never see beyond this narrative smokescreen. The resulting perpetual mystery around the supernatural makes us uncertain, which mimics the confused horror felt by those who encounter Kupersmith’s second shroud: a conscious, haunted red smoke that consumes some and spits others back out with a symbiotic ghost within them.

One encounter takes place in Dalat in 1942 when a French Vietnamese schoolboy, Jean-François Auffret, finds himself in a terribly timed prank. Jean-François hides in the Dalat woods to scare his superiors and entertain his friends just as the Japanese launch a coup. He makes it out alive, thanks to an attack from the smoke that painlessly immobilizes him, bonds with every cell of his body, and alters him forever. For the next 70 years, he learns to live with the smoke and even how to summon a grotesque “party trick” with his jaw, which scares off a trio of kids attempting to blackmail him in 1993.

Another forest that sees the smoke and Jean-François is a rubber tree forest in the Highlands, specifically the rural Ia Kare region. In 1986, Jean-François, now the Saigon Spirit Eradication Co.’s designated Fortune Teller, goes into the haunted, cobra-infested rubber forest to rescue the young daughter of the wealthy Ma family. Though she is saved, the girl is never the same. Over two decades later in 2011, a mysterious, paranormal dripping sound torments her and her husband, who is a Nguyen. The Saigon Spirit Eradication Co.’s rite doesn’t go as planned, and the spirit behind the dripping makes a beeline for a certain Nguyen in Saigon.

Kupersmith juggles a lot of people, places and events, and the details within them always connect to other characters, the mysterious conflict and additional plot points. For the vast majority of the book, “what does this have to do with anything?” is not on the reader’s mind; bizarre, terror-inducing events are promptly contextualized in later chapters. The novel develops its characters with relatable and sympathetic plights and thickens its supernatural mystery with carefully placed hints and literary breadcrumbs. However, the trail leads to an out-of-place resolution that distracts from an otherwise well-woven story.

BUILD YOUR HOUSE AROUND MY BODY is an A- novel that would’ve earned an A+ if it weren’t for its final 50 pages. But its 300 or so preceding pages are a testament to a talented author who knows how to frighten her readers and intertwine a wide-ranging story. Kupersmith’s ability to balance character development with a thickening plot, conflict and suspense is extraordinary. There are still questions after finishing the book, but they lend to the mysteriousness and horror of the tale’s supernatural elements, and make a second reading just as exciting as the first.

Reviewed by Sam Johnson on July 23, 2021

Build Your House Around My Body
by Violet Kupersmith

  • Publication Date: July 6, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Magical Realism
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0812993322
  • ISBN-13: 9780812993325