“Build Your House Around My Body” by Violet Kupersmith

Violet Kupersmith Violet Kupersmith

Winnie Nguyen moves to Saigon in 2010 to teach English, but also to become a more resilient, stronger version of her biracial American self. Early in Violet Kupersmith’s new novel, Build Your House Around My Body, Winnie spots a banyan tree outside an old temple in Saigon and hopes she, too, can become like a banyan, “to encase Old Winnie completely in its cage-like lattice of roots and then let her wither away inside.” There’s nothing particular she’s trying to escape from, but rather she hopes to find a home in which she won’t stand out or feel alone, as she had as the fourth child—and youngest by many years—of a Vietnamese immigrant father and white American mother in their Maryland suburb. Soon Winnie makes the ultimate escape in Vietnam when she disappears.

Kupersmith is a beautiful writer and weaves the story of Winnie’s disappearance into a larger narrative that spans more than eighty years of Vietnamese history. Less about the more familiar Vietnam War with the Americans, it instead concentrates on French colonization, World War II, and the start of the war with the French in the 1950s. And the central imagery of the book is not the banyan tree, as hinted at the beginning, but snakes.


Build Your House Around My Body, Violet Kupersmith (Random House, July 2021)
Build Your House Around My Body, Violet Kupersmith (Random House, Oneworld, July 2021)

Kupersmith’s colorful cast of characters includes a crew of Winnie’s expat colleagues who take their teaching duties more seriously than experiencing the sights and food of Saigon. Winnie’s main nemesis include a married couple she calls Mr and Mrs Cook.


The Cooks were prolific disinfectors. Wherever they went, they carried at least two packs of Lysol wipes to attack any surface they encountered that did not meet their standards. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, their housekeeper, Ba Khanh, cleaned the apartment, and after she left, the Cooks would spend another hour revacuuming and scrubbing everything. They brushed their teeth with bottled water and did not allow any beverage that had been in contact with a Vietnamese ice cube to pass their lips.


Winnie at first stays with extended relatives, but that doesn’t work out very well because of their culture clashes. Winnie is too American for their tastes and they are too restrictive and nosy for hers. She moves into the Cooks’ guest room for a while, but that doesn’t last long either. She then moves in with Long, an administrator at the English school where they both work. The two date and it seems as if Long is a caring boyfriend, even after Winnie quits her job and stays home all day doing nothing. Long always brings Winnie dinner when he returns home each night and is diligent about not making noise in the morning so as not to wake her. But as with most of the storylines in the novel, initial appearances are not always what they seem at first.

This is not true, however, when Winnie meets up with her elder brother’s medical school classmate, an overseas Vietnamese who has also relocated to Saigon. “You can call me Dr Sang. Everyone does,” he says when they reacquaint in Saigon a couple months into Winnie’s stay. Although the doctor is off-putting, she enjoys being around someone other than the English school staff and her great-aunt and cousins. The doctor also stands out to locals because of the way he speaks Vietnamese.


The diaspora-tinged flourishes of his vocabulary. The way he always used the pretentious, pre-’75 words for “airport” and “opera house”. The quintessentially capitalist manner in which he moved his lips.


As it turns out, the doctor is involved in shady businesses involving snakes; Winnie will soon fall into that dark world, which indirectly results in her disappearance. There’s also an old fortune teller who wears a giant Stetson and has the ability to open his jaws as wide as a cobra’s. Kupersmith deploys both folklore and magical realism as when Long’s brother, a police officer named Tan, visits a sergeant in the hospital after the latter is attacked by a mysterious woman: the sergeant warns that his attacker was not human, but rather a demon with claws.


“Look,” said the sergeant to Tan, “I don’t know much about this kind of thing. The creepy shit. Monsters. Demons. Whatever. My folks do—they’re Delta people, the real superstitious kind of hicks—and I used to laugh at them whenever they’d lecture me about, like, the twenty-eight different species of water ghost.” He paused to open a new beer and took a long, noisy swallow. “Not anymore. After I leave the hospital I’m going straight to the closest pagoda and loading up on all the protective junk I can find.”


All of the side stories Kupersmith introduces—from back before WWII to months before Winnie’s disappearance—come together for a chilling and thrilling conclusion. She thought it necessary to include at the front of the book an extensive list of the many relationships between the different characters, as well as an illustrated map of the Highlands area where some of the story takes place, but Kupersmith’s storytelling makes it relatively easy to keep track of these different relationships without referring back to these cheat sheets, except for at the very end as the unhurried, steady narrative amps up many notches. Although it can be a little difficult to keep up, Build Your House Around My Body is an engaging story set against a detailed look at contemporary Vietnamese culture and how that has been shaped, for better or worse, by influences going back to French colonial times.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.