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A Wildly Original Intermingling of Tales From Vietnam, Past and Present

In the Saigoneer office — which I haven't actually seen in person for months — a common concern is the prevalence of the war in literature about Vietnam. Even among younger writers, particularly in the diaspora, books often center on the experience of conflict, or the trauma that followed.

This is not a criticism, as these voices and the diverse backgrounds they represent are much-needed and a welcome addition to the literary canon on Vietnam — such books include Saigoneer favorites The Mountains Sing and Things We Lost to the Water.

But the ubiquity of these themes makes the stunningly original Build Your House Around My Body, the debut novel of Violet Kupersmith, all the more unexpected. Kupersmith, who is half-Vietnamese, is based in the United States, but previously taught English under the Fulbright program in the Mekong Delta, and also lived in Saigon and Da Lat.

The riveting book makes it clear that her time here was well-spent, as the descriptions of the locations in the novel feel lived-in, even when they span decades and generations.

It's hard to describe Build Your House Around My Body in a simple way, as it ranges from 2010s Saigon to Gia Lai Province in the 1980s, Da Lat in the 1940s and back again, with a sprawling cast of unique characters.

The main character, if there can be one, is Winnie Nguyen (whose real name is Ngoan), a rudderless, self-destructive Vietnamese American who arrives in Saigon in late 2010, gets a job at an ESL center named Achievement! that she puts no effort into, and falls into some of the worst habits many foreigners who moved here in their 20s will be familiar with: heavy drinking, reckless nights at deafening nightclubs, and generally questionable life choices, before vanishing one day — one of the driving events of the narrative.

Winnie's storyline presents a vividly depicted image of foreigner life in the city, including scabrous recreations of social stereotypes many will be familiar with.

For example, there are the Cooks, an American couple working at Achievement! who "introduced themselves, unprompted, as 'the good kind of expat,'" meaning they took Vietnamese language lessons, volunteered, and avoided the usual tourist destinations, but also preferred yoga and veggie burgers while completely shunning street food and local produce. 

Build Your House Around My Body deftly blends genres as well, with much of Winnie's misspent time in Saigon described in a noir-like verisimilitude that often delves into the lurid, such as an incident involving a drug-addled police officer in a flooded karaoke parlor bathroom.

It also embraces elements of the supernatural, and sometimes outright horror, particularly in the passages set in the fully realized past. This is most prominent in the rural village of Ia Kare, in Gia Lai, where a different young woman went missing in 1986. Here, we meet a haunted old rubber plantation, a smoke monster, a frightening fortune teller (who heads the Saigon Spirit Eradication Company), and a bizarre elderly woman with a possibly possessed dog.

All of these plotlines — including that of a young half-Khmer, half-French boy who is sent to an école in Da Lat right as the Japanese take over the country — intersect in unexpected ways. The novel is an exhilarating narrative rollercoaster, and completely unlike anything I've read set in Vietnam.

Kupersmith is an exquisite writer, and there are simply wonderous descriptions of settings. For example, in her aimless wandering, Winnie sometimes "chose little coffee shops that were cached down narrow alleys — four tables packed into the front sitting room of a family house, pantsless toddlers capering about underfoot, roasted watermelon seeds — complimentary but never touched — slowly going stale in red plastic bowls next to the unused ashtrays of card-playing men in undershirts who tapped their cigarettes out onto the floor tiles instead."

Or, when it came to finding food, "there was always someone on a street corner selling grilled pork chops or bánh mì or soup iridescent with chicken fat. Winnie believed that this was the best way to absorb the entirety of the city, inch by humid inch, and she applied herself to the task with all the energy that she was not devoting to her actual teaching job."

There are also some choice descriptions of parts of contemporary of Saigon that are sure to amuse — or perhaps anger — opinionated long-time residents. District 2, for instance, was a confusing place for the police officer character: "part slum, part haven for expats, part suburb for wealthy Vietnamese who wanted to live like expats, and the parts at the seams where they met and bled into each other."

Or the zoo, where "the animals were all dead-eyed and bony and kept in filthy cement closures" more depressing than District 12 slums. Such vibrant, unfiltered imagery gives the book a crackling energy that is impossible not to get drawn into.

Taken together, Build Your House Around Body is an exciting, brilliant, seedy and surprising novel that indicates the arrival of a major literary talent. It demands a place on your bookshelf and is sure to leave a lasting mark on modern Vietnamese literature.

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