Build Your House Around My Body
You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
Sometimes – and more often than I’d like to admit – I hit a stumbling block in my reading ambitions, usually in the form of a book I found unlovable, however much I might have wanted to love it before I read it. (Case in point: this entire list of books I’m glad I didn’t buy.) But every now and then I run into this list’s delightful opposite (i.e., books I should’ve bought to begin with), which was 100% the case here, because holy shit this book. Fuck everything else I’ve read this year, or maybe ever. This is my new favorite book, and the first addition to my deserted island list in a long ass time. If it weren’t illegal, I would absolutely steal it from the library and pretend it got lost.
Build Your House Around My Body is the twisting, feverish story of three Vietnamese women who become entangled in unexpected ways. Though they never meet face to face (er, technically), they are connected by the malevolent red smoke that drifts through their lives, and by the men whose stories provide background and context. Both women and men are shadowed by the Fortune Teller, a supernaturally enhanced exorcist who slips in and out of their lives without meaning to, leaving quiet traces of his passage. Woven into these stories are whispers of a darker history, as Vietnam is occupied first by the French and then by the Japanese, and then, even later, by tourists.
I should preface this review by saying that things are going to go a little differently today. Normally I summarize a book in advance of telling you what I think about it, but in this case the details are so intricate and the story so tightly plotted that it really is not possible to comprehensively summarize the book without completely reciting it. This is a story whose details you need to discover for yourself, so, while there will be spoilers in keeping with my usual custom of not keeping my damn mouth shut, I am going to do my very best not to reveal answers. With that in mind, I think the best approach is to summarize the characters rather than the story itself.
The story opens in 2010 with Ngoan “Winnie” Nguyen, a young Vietnamese American woman suffering from severe depression. She has recently graduated college, and, overshadowed by her successful (and significantly older) siblings, has moved to Saigon in search of a fresh start. Things don’t go as smoothly as she had hoped, however, and she becomes lonely and isolated, rejected by her Vietnamese relatives and unable to make friends at work. She is regularly taunted and patronized by two of her coworkers, a white couple who embody every negative thing I’ve ever heard about white career tourists, but later moves in with them out of sheer desperation. Her hoped-for fresh start never arrives, and, a few months after shacking up with her coworker Long, she abruptly disappears. (It’s worth noting that in the end she does get a chance to start over, though it’s not exactly what she had in mind when she left the States.)
Born to a wealthy pepper farmer, Yen Ma went missing in 1986. She was eventually found by the Fortune Teller but returned fundamentally changed, later marrying a field hand named Field Rat after her father’s violent death. Field Rat agreed to take the Ma family name but now regrets it, as he feels rejected by the rest of the Ma family and has been steadily losing his grip on his sanity. Following a botched exorcism, Yen escapes the pepper farm sans husband and falls in love with the Fortune Teller’s female assistant. Her lover becomes the new Fortune Teller, and together they take over the Saigon Spirit Eradication Co., a tiny company that investigates supernatural happenings.
Despite a presumably stable upbringing on her aunt and uncle’s cashew farm, Binh grows up filled with a darkness that seems to border on the supernatural. Her insatiable desire for chaos drives her to commit a number of crimes from childhood onward, from blackmailing cemetery visitors to embezzling school field trip funds to physically assaulting her friends in a drunken fury. She spends her childhood in the company of neighboring brothers Long and Tan, who are both infatuated with her, but becomes estranged from them when their career paths lead them away from their hometown. Having no particular ambitions, she moves into a dilapidated cabin on an abandoned rubber plantation and continues to work in her aunt and uncle’s orchard. Though she doesn’t have electricity or running water, she gets along just fine until her reunion with Tan ignites a powerful rage that pursues him all the way back to Saigon.
Along with the women, the story follows Long, who meets Winnie through the English school that employs them both; Tan, who has discovered that police work is more profitable when the police are the ones fabricating the crimes; the Fortune Teller, whose boarding school days set him on his current trajectory; and Gaspard Valentin Renaud and Jean-Pierre Courcoul, retired Con Son prison guards and elephant-obsessed former owners of the rubber plantation whose cabin Binh appropriates. It may seem like an odd line-up, but most of their stories intersect in some way, and nothing is random. And yet, though nobody could accuse the plot of being simple, it’s not difficult to follow. The intricacy of the story never interferes with reader comprehension. It’s a work of art. Its official synopsis makes it sound a lot drearier than it actually is, which seems like an odd choice when the book is infused with a sly, pervasive humor. This is officially one of the funniest passages I’ve ever read:
There would be an elephant, it turned out, but she was ancient and foul tempered and the last of her kind left in the backwoods town where Gaspard and Jean-Pierre had decided to start their new lives. Her name was Su-Su, after the wrinkly squash she resembled, and on their third morning in the Highlands, Gaspard and Jean-Pierre had awoken to the sound of her headbutting their truck.
Su-Su belonged to a Rhadé elder and, now that she was too old to work, was generally given free rein of the village. The children adored Su-Su even though she did not reciprocate their feelings, and they would parade behind her like rats following the Pied Piper while she wandered from house to house, stealing pumpkins from front gardens.
And this was a very close second:
Tan swallowed hard. He was going to receive another promotion; he was certain of it. He’d only met the colonel once before, at a card game, but must have made an impression on him somehow. Perhaps word had gotten out about his invaluable work investigating a university drug ring (two first-years at a polytechnic college busted for dealing marijuana – Tan had proudly planted the evidence himself).
For a book that sounds so unfocused on paper, Build Your House is surprisingly sharp, funny, and perfectly written. It would have been easy for Kupersmith to get lost in the details, as other authors have in similarly complex books, but she never loses control of her cast or her web of disparate storylines. Even though I know all the answers, this book will never lose its reread value, because I now want to read it again and again to see what I missed in my first pass. Normally I would pick on the book for not narrating from Binh’s point of view, given that she is so prominent in the story, but in this case it works. Binh is a character best viewed from the outside. I don’t need to see the inside of her head, which feels so similar to mine. Our darknesses have expressed themselves differently, but I think I might have identified just a little too closely with Binh if I’d seen any more of her. She is, in some respects, uncomfortably close to home.
If there is one tiny thing I didn’t entirely like, it is that Winnie is an extraordinarily frustrating character to follow for such a large chunk of the book. If this is what it’s like watching me make self-destructive choices for no other reason than that they’re easy and I’m too tired and overwhelmed to think of any better options, I may owe my guardian angel an apology. My choices have been self-destructive in different ways, however, which makes it easy for me to judge Winnie for going out clubbing and drinking herself blind every night. It’s harder to judge her for bumbling through life without any real plans, working an unsatisfactory job and throwing money away and moving from temporary home to temporary home. That was every day of my early- to mid-twenties, and, while I am grateful to have clawed my way out of that phase, I get it. I know the inertia that keeps her in the same job, the same lifestyle, the same self-obliterating cycle. I feel the internal constraints that torpedo her ability to burn the bridges between herself and the people who needle her daily, and the furious desire to prove them wrong, even if indirectly.
As far as the ending goes: I know there’s at least one puzzled goodreads review, and that’s not unreasonable, but I actually love the ending. It is refreshingly bizarre and deeply satisfying, in that I think Winnie is/will be happier. I’m not entirely sure of her ultimate fate because it could’ve gone a couple of ways, but overall I feel she and Binh have found their ways to better places. And, though she’s not always present in the story, I am pleased with Yen’s ending. I love that she and the new Fortune Teller get to road-trip it all over Vietnam. After everything they’ve been through, they really deserved a break, and I’m glad they got one. I’m glad it’s just them in the van. The ending would not have been as sweet if they’d been dragging Mr. Ma and the original Fortune Teller around the country with them.
Ultimately, this book was unsettling, beautifully written, and completely unexpected. My next step will be to loop the audiobook into oblivion, because I want to know how all the names are pronounced. I had no idea what to expect when I randomly picked Build Your House from the library display, but it has been such a pleasant surprise, and I am eager to see what Kupersmith writes next.