... eerie and electric ... That is this novel’s power: It followed me into my days, refusing to release me ... This is a big, packed novel. Reading it provides a sensation not unlike riding on a motorbike overloaded with passengers and wares: It careens, it tilts and at times I wondered if it would reach its destination without a crash. But Kupersmith proves herself a fearless driver who revels in the daunting challenge she has set for herself. There are so many ways this novel could have lost its balance; instead, its too-much-ness makes for a thrilling read, acrobatic and filled with verve ... It helps that Kupersmith is a brilliant technician of the small moment, the just-right observation. Her sensory language is at once bold and perfectly precise ... The novel also deliciously skewers backpacker and expat cultures in Southeast Asia ... For a novel that sustains such a menacing mood, Build Your House Around My Body is frequently very funny ... Like many narratives that braid together large casts across time and place, Kupersmith’s relies on numerous improbable coincidences to tie its stories together...A reader could be forgiven for thinking that Saigon is a city of 10 instead of nearly 10 million ... Yet Kupersmith convinces the reader that these characters are drawn together not by narrative necessity, but by larger forces. As the coincidences piled up, I had the uncanny sense that I was witnessing the inexorable machinery of fate. One of Kupersmith’s most dazzling feats is that she manages to slot her characters into this machinery while also letting them feel invigoratingly autonomous. The same careening sense of possibility that energizes the novel at its grandest scale infuses its interiority. Nearly every character is endowed with psychological peculiarity and the freedom to surprise, and this grants a riveting, kinetic quality to the simplest domestic scenes...The one exception is Winnie herself, whom Kupersmith keeps on a much tighter leash. Her downward spiral is textbook: slovenliness, drinking, insomnia, drinking to combat insomnia. It’s not that any of this is unrealistic, but that the narrative reminds the reader again and again that Winnie is this and only this: empty, lost, a nonentity ... If Winnie’s descent feels overdetermined, it nevertheless illuminates the novel’s primary preoccupation: with the body and its violations, both the sexual trauma experienced by the female characters and the ravages of colonial occupation and war upon the body of Vietnam ... provide an ingenious means of exploring the enduring effects of trauma ... Kupersmith’s ending is as bold and surprising as the plot that precedes it, but it is also stunningly delicate. The careening journey ends with a gentle dismount; Kupersmith was in complete control all along.
... a beautifully wrought, non-linear tale of ghosts, missing girls, and revenge set against the backdrop of colonial and post-colonial Vietnam ... the real stroke of genius, and why I found myself falling in love with Build Your House Around My Body, is that Kupersmith’s subtle skill of drawing our focus away from Winnie’s inevitable fate also matches Winnie’s desire to fade into the scenery ... such a fantastic book. For one, it’s a novel that deals passionately with several themes, whether it’s Winnie’s struggle with her identity, or Binh’s independence and her refusal to be boxed in by the men in her life, or the shaping of Vietnam by the figurative and literal ghosts of its French colonial past. And, while I can’t speak to Kupersmith’s characterisation of Vietnamese folklore, her use of smoke spirits that manipulate people and animals as flesh puppets coupled with the preponderance of snakes (something to keep in mind if slithery reptiles bother you) make for a dark fantasy that’s truly chilling and creepy. In a year where the ongoing, depressing reality of COVID has made it challenging to escape to other places and other worlds, I had no such trouble with immersing myself in Violet Kupersmith’s wonderful debut novel.
... marvellous and confounding ... Interwoven with Winnie’s story are spooky vignettes taking place in the days and decades before and after her vanishing. In some of the novel’s most thrilling and original sections, we follow ghost hunters from the Saigon Spirit Eradication Co in 2011, encounter a Vietnamese French schoolboy left on a mountain as the Japanese launch their coup in 1945, and meet a trio of childhood friends in the early 90s—the bland brothers Tan and Long, who pine for the headstrong and rather caricaturish Binh. The reader gradually gleans connections between the stories in ingenious or sometimes convoluted ways ... with its seam of delightfully lurid feminist body horror, Build Your House Around My Body more closely recalls the fabulist work of Kelly Link, Intan Paramaditha and Mariana Enríquez ... At their strongest, the novel’s descriptive powers and sense of place are vivid and intoxicating ... at other moments the descriptions are overegged or too technical. Framing the disparate strands around Winnie’s disappearance can jolt the reader out of more engaging plotlines, most notably that of the ghost hunters.