In 2011, Winnie, a young Vietnamese-American woman, is eking out her days as an English teacher in Saigon, scarcely bothering to teach her students anything more than the slang phrases she scribbles on the board (‘Humblebrag, catfishing, bikini body, friends with benefits’). Long Phan, now Winnie’s boyfriend, is haunted by Binh, a girl he met when they were children – but not as haunted as his brother Tan. Seven months earlier, Fortune Teller and his two assistants are called to investigate a ghostly dripping sound in a house in Ia Kare, isolated in the rural highlands of Vietnam. In 1949, two Frenchmen lease twenty acres of bushland in the same area and plant rubber trees, hoping it’s the route to a quick fortune. And in 1986, the teenage daughter of a wealthy Vietnamese man gets lost in that forest trying to escape the horrors of her present.
Build Your House Around My Body flips between these different characters in different times, not stopping to explain to the reader how they are connected, so it’s only really in the last quarter of the novel that it starts to come together. However, I found one of the attractions of this narrative was its puzzle-box nature; when the links finally click, it’s both chilling and satisfying. This is definitely very reminiscent of David Mitchell, especially his The Bone Clocks and Slade House (although I liked it a lot more than I liked Slade House), with a smattering of other horror tropes; Kupersmith has fun playing with imagery from The Ring/Ringu, for example. And that’s another aspect of Build Your House that you might not anticipate from the blurb; there’s a dry wit that runs through it; it doesn’t take itself too seriously. (‘Though the Fortune Teller’s horoscopes were always alarmingly accurate, whenever he bet on soccer games he lost’).
I’d agree with other reviewers that this novel is too long – especially because it spends so much time on disparate episodes before tying up its threads – but it partly makes up for its length by some incredibly memorable set-pieces. Three children meet a man in a graveyard whose jaw gradually unhinges to emit red smoke. A wealthy coffee plantation owner possesses a book with a strand of hair from all of his sexual conquests who return in unusual form. A woman’s hair lengthens and lengthens until a man can braid it into three braids each as thick as his forearm.
For much of Build Your House, I agreed with Sharlene Teo in the Guardian that Winnie is one of the ‘disaffected millennial heroines’ that I would call Disaster Women, and which I’ve come to tire of as a fictional trope. I wished we’d get more of the vivid Binh and less of Winnie’s endless moping. But by the end of the novel, I began to see what Kupersmith was doing with Winnie. She’s less a Disaster Woman in the mould of Edie in Luster or Ava in Exciting Times and more like the narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. She’s literally trying to break down and discard her own body. This insight still left me feeling that we got too much Winnie, but at least her travails had some direction.
While this is undoubtedly a flawed novel, I loved its originality and daring, and I think it’s likely to be one of my favourites on the Women’s Prize longlist. In addition, my Waterstones special edition of the novel contained a bonus short story, ‘My Darkling’. This had shades of the Julia Armfield/Carmen Maria Machado/Kate Folk axis that I wrote about in my review of Folk’s Out There, but was an exceptional example of this weird sub-genre, so I’ll definitely be looking to read Kupersmith’s earlier short story collection, The Frangipani Hotel.
I’m not aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, but I’ve selected eleven titles that I do want to read. This is number eight. I’ve already read Great Circle, The Book of Form and Emptiness, Careless, The Sentence, The Paper Palace, Remote Sympathy and The Final Revival of Opal & Nev.