Remember the smoke monster from “Lost”? It appears that he’s alive and well and living in Violet Kupersmith’s debut novel, Build Your House Around My Body. Add in two-headed cobras, hungry ghosts, body-hopping and body horror (both the more ordinary kind that involves explosive emesis and incontinence, and the kind that involves eldritch distortions), then throw in Vietnam’s history as a chew toy of empires, and you have a small part of what goes on in this kaleidoscopic book.
On its surface, Build Your House Around My Body concerns Winnie Nguyen, a Vietnamese American woman who’s come to Vietnam to teach and to find herself. One day, she disappears. Every chapter heading refers to her vanishing; one chapter is set 62 years before her disappearance, while another’s events occur the day after. It’s as if the workings of the cosmos depend on the fate of this messed up, seemingly insignificant young woman.
And how messed up she is, despite her longing to be good. When she is told that good Vietnamese girls don’t drink coffee, she never touches it again. But Winnie just can’t make her life work. She exists in a state of squalor, both internally and externally, reflecting the condition of Saigon’s noisome open-air markets, sleazy sex motels and creepy karaoke bars and beer joints.
Kupersmith’s grasp of her story’s secondary characters is as firm as her grasp of Winnie. There’s the gentle and befuddled Long and his estranged brother, Tan, both in love with a combative girl named Binh. There are Winnie’s ridiculous fellow teachers at the Achievement! International Language Academy. There are fortunetellers and shape-shifters, pepper and rubber plantation tycoons, and a lady who may or may not be a paraplegic who sells fake lottery tickets.
It would have been easy for a book with so much going on to collapse into incoherence, but it’s an engaging read the whole way through. Build Your House Around My Body is an unsettling and powerful work.