In Violet Kupersmith’s Novel, a Young Woman Disappears in Saigon

By Violet Kupersmith

The day after I finished reading “Build Your House Around My Body,” my son pulled a ball of putty into a long rope and declared it a snake with two heads. A two-headed cobra appears throughout the novel, at once creature and symbol, binding together the novel’s characters and bridging its realistic and supernatural elements. Watching my son, I had the sense that Violet Kupersmith’s eerie and electric debut novel was spreading beyond the bounds of the page and seeping into my life. That is this novel’s power: It followed me into my days, refusing to release me.

Following Kupersmith’s 2014 story collection, “The Frangipani Hotel,” “Build Your House Around My Body” is itself built around Winnie, a 22-year-old American (her mother is white, her father Vietnamese) who moves to Saigon to teach English at the Achievement! International Language Academy. Winnie arrives in Vietnam a blank slate: “She had brought with her a passport, two sets of clean clothes and her own flesh. All the rest she would acquire.” She hopes to gain from her time in the country nothing less than a new self, “a better self, a banyan self,” Kupersmith writes, “to encase Old Winnie completely in its cagelike lattice of roots and then let her wither away inside.”

Instead, she languishes. She neglects her teaching, forms no friendships, drinks too much, has a terrible sexual encounter with an intoxicated police officer she meets in the bathroom at a karaoke bar. Eventually, she seeks refuge with Long, a staffer at Achievement! Their relationship is built not on romance or even connection, but on mutual exchange, and it only exacerbates both characters’ anguish: Long takes care of Winnie, who so desperately needs caring for. In exchange, Winnie becomes “the Mouth,” providing Long with sexual pleasure. When the novel opens, Long has returned home to find Winnie missing.

Her disappearance forms the novel’s trunk, from which it branches widely and wildly (the front matter contains a character list and several maps), stretching from Saigon to the highlands, from French colonial occupation to the present-day tourist economy. This is a story replete with supernatural occurrences. A fortuneteller can open his jaw widely enough to turn himself inside out. A woman’s yellow eyes rove outside her body. There is menacing copper-colored smoke, that two-headed cobra and numerous instances of spirits inhabiting other bodies. As a human consciousness occupying the body of a stray dog explains: “Think of it this way: Your body is a motorbike. You are driving it. Me, in my little dog body — it’s more like somebody riding a bicycle. But the two of us can sort of … trade vehicles if we want to.”

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