TThe twin specters of colonialism and sexual violence lurk in the humid Vietnamese air as two-headed snakes slip underfoot in Violet Kupersmith’s wonderful and puzzling debut novel. Build your house around my body is structured around the disappearance of Winnie, a 22-year-old Vietnamese-American who came to Saigon in 2010 to teach English and, apparently, reconnect with her heritage. However, the humble and eager Winnie seems more determined to drown her inhibitions in mindless sex and warm beer. She feels no affinity with either her fellow expats or the locals, but rather with the stray dogs that roam her street, “thin, sharp-jawed, and encrusted with ticks … mongrels, like her, and dirty like her.” Neither white nor Asian to be comfortable with either designation, Winnie’s biracial identity makes her a perpetual outsider plagued by micro-injuries and self-loathing.
Interwoven with Winnie’s story are lurid vignettes that take place in the days and decades before and after her disappearance. In some of the novel’s most exciting and original sections, we follow the ghost hunters of Saigon Spirit Eradication Co in 2011, we meet a Vietnamese French schoolboy abandoned on a mountain as the Japanese launch their coup in 1945, and We meet a trio of childhood friends in the early 90s: the squishy brothers Tan and Long, who long for the stubborn and rather caricatured Binh.
The reader gradually picks up the connections between the stories in clever or sometimes complicated ways. Kupersmith has been compared to David Mitchell for the cast of time-jumping characters and the overwhelming ambition of his novel. Yet with its deliciously creepy feminist body horror seam, Build your house around my body recalls more closely the fabulist work of Kelly Link, Intan Paramaditha and Mariana Enríquez.
The book is certainly not for the squeamish: Kupersmith is not afraid to delve into the abject and grotesque, bringing to mind Asian horror movies like the 2004 Thai film. Shutter or japanese movies The ring Y Dark water A sinister smoke monster stalks the narrative that could have escaped from the famous and puzzling American television series. Lost, a smoke that “could not have its own memories, because it was already a kind of memory.” Perhaps the smoke monster functions as a manifestation of the “irreversibly transfigured” soul of a land torn apart by colonial brutality. Perhaps the two-headed serpent that keeps appearing is a metaphor for personal and political betrayal. The reader is left to derive deeper resonances from the body in a well or soul-changing puppy, or simply take these elements at face value and enjoy the ride in the funhouse.
At its strongest, the novel’s descriptive powers and sense of place are vivid and intoxicating. Published during a time of social distancing and travel restrictions, it effectively transports the reader from spooky forests to ruined zoos, through the throbbing, crowded belly of a Saigon club with “membrane pink walls under hazy aquatic lighting. … Y [a] penetrating saline aroma of the many sweaty bodies inside ”. However, at other times the descriptions are excessive or too technical. Framing the disparate threads around Winnie’s disappearance can draw the reader into more engaging plots, especially that of the ghost hunters.
Disaffected millennial heroines are everywhere right now, with memorable examples in Kylie Whitehead’s horror novel Cronenbergiana. Absorbed and Raven Leilani’s scathing social satire Gloss. However, the corny and taciturn Winnie lacks the humorous humor and fleeting self-awareness of the Whitehead and Leilani leads, and it becomes a challenge to continue to sympathize with her, let alone feel involved in the lingering mystery of her disappearance. When Winnie’s thread finally merges with Binh’s, it feels like the story is taking off, before reaching a cryptic and rather abrupt conclusion.
In the accompanying interview, Kupersmith explains that she wrote Build your house around my body as a kind of revenge story and a way of processing “anger [she] I had witnessed against women … the kind of violence that was so accepted that it was just ordinary. ” He loves writing about ghosts because “they can reclaim the entire agency and the power that was denied to them while they were still alive.” This theme of justice and retribution is buried under the weight of a somewhat complicated polyphonic narrative: Kupersmith is a naturally talented storyteller, but I wonder if the cumulative effect of the novel would have been stronger if the threads were simplified and made more. easy to follow. . However, an excess of ideas and imagination is not a bad thing for a novelist; This is a hugely impressive debut that indicates even greater things to come.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism