Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: Build Your House Around My Body

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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 CircleThe Book of Form and Emptiness, Careless, The Sentence, The Paper Palace, Remote Sympathy and The Final Revival of Opal & Nev.

21 thoughts on “Women’s Prize for Fiction, 2022: Build Your House Around My Body

  1. Not that I am shallow or anything, but I love the cover 😊

    The term “disaster women” is a great one. Not heard that before. I’m really sick of those books about detested melancholy 20-somethings populating fiction at the moment… and the stupid covers with women covering their faces (with hands, clothes, walls etc) as if they are afraid to look at the world. These tales can feel a bit navel-gazing with their whiny first world problems, but this one sounds like it’s sufficiently different (if a bit long) and I’m intrigued by the Vietnam setting.

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    • Totally agree, I am a millennial but I don’t identify with disaster women at all!! (It is a great term – not sure where it comes from. I’ve seen a lot of bloggers use it). I wouldn’t say that this is a disaster woman novel, although there were a few long sections with Winnie that I found a bit tiring – it’s much more original and interesting. I loved the use of Vietnamese folklore.

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    • Yeah, I’ve been getting a bit impatient, frankly, with the misuse of the term ‘magic realism’ by some reviewers recently. I know people disagree about this, but to me, ‘magic realism’ is not an umbrella term but describes a very specific mode of writing. A better umbrella term for novels with fantastical or SF elements is ‘speculative fiction’. (I moan about this more in my review of Irenosen Okojie’s Nudibranch – which I would classify as magical realism – if you’re interested! https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3000753241). tbf, I can see how some elements of Build Your House do stray close to magical realism, but I would principally classify it as a speculative horror novel.

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      • “Speculative horror” is a great term. “Magical realism” does seem like a genre that’s grounded in quite a specific time and place; if it ain’t Garcia Marquez, does it really count, or is it something else?!

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        • It’s not really my place to decide but I’ve read a number of interesting takes on this from South American writers. There’s a lot of disagreement! My takeaway is that you should avoid the term unless you really know what you’re talking about. I think speculative fiction is a much more useful term, with the added bonus of not immediately putting off all the people who say they never read magical realism!

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  2. I had very similar feelings to you Laura when I read this. I enjoyed it very much and was happy to go along with the disparate narratives until it all clicked into place, but I agree that Winnie was a bit much at times.

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  3. This is a novel that I’ve really been on the fence about — I’ve picked it up, and put it back, at least twice during bookstore binges. On the plus side, the Vietnamese setting is definitely a draw and I’m quite fond of speculative fiction & horror. Winnie, however, does sound like she might begin to grate a little, but I did like the idea of her slacker English lessons (“friends with benefits;” “catfishing”) and the Mitchell comparison sells me (although I was less than overwhelmed by Slade House or the Bone Clocks). This one goes on the list!

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    • It’s tricky! There is a lot of Winnie but I’d say at least half the book is not about her. The Vietnamese setting is hugely atmospheric. I loved The Bone Clocks and I do think, of all Mitchell’s novels, that’s the one this is closest to – but, IIRC, The Bone Clocks gets a lot weirder and wackier than this ever does. (And I hated Slade House, just mentioned it here because of some similar horror elements.) Look forward to reading your thoughts if you do try it!

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  4. I got sent a copy of this last year, and with yours and Rebecca’s recent review am rather keen to read it now.
    I will slightly take issue with you over magic realism and speculative fiction though! For me magic realism stems from magic being a natural thing that pops into everyday life (but not really as superpowers), and spec fiction is SF that is too close to now to be truly SF – but I’ll willing to be corrected (or argue further!) 😀

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    • I am by no means an expert on magical realism, but the books I’ve seen labelled as such, other than the South American canon, tend to be those where magic occurs unexplained and where the characters just accept it rather than reacting. (I talk about this more in my review of Nudibranch – link in my reply to Elle above). There’s a sense that the magic is only included to serve broader symbolic or psychological themes. Spec fic, in contrast, is closer to SFF, but doesn’t imo belong solely to either SF or fantasy (otherwise there are a load of books that I struggle to fit anywhere). I would definitely agree though that Build Your House has elements of magical realism, as well as spec fic and horror – I just don’t think the magical realism dominates.

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  5. This is one of the longlisted books that I have been most excited to pick up. Having seen a few people mention its disparate narratives and jumping around in time, though, I figured that it might take a bit more concentration and so I’ve been saving it for a quiet weekend. I’m really glad that it largely worked for you, and I’m particularly interested that you note that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. I really enjoy it when an author can strike a balance between darkness and humour. Also, I am completely obsessed with that cover.

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