Review and synopsis of Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith
Spoiler Free Review
I’ve recently found myself drawn to books written by Asian and Asian American women. It’s a perspective that I previously had little exposure to and now I’m enjoying exploring all that the sub genre has to offer. Build Your House Around My Body combines complex fiction with Vietnamese folklore to create a truly unique novel that will stick with you long after you’ve finished reading.
The plot revolves around the disappearance of a young woman named Winnie. She’s half Vietnamese, half white, and has come from America to Vietnam to start her life anew. We never see what her past was or what she’s fleeing but we clearly see that she is a deeply unhappy person.
As so many Americans do in any Eastern country she begins to teach English. She hates it, she hates her life. She drinks and wanders the small town desperate to stay away from her Aunt’s house for as long as possible. She cannot afford her own place nor is she capable of taking care of herself.
The reader knows from the beginning that she will vanish at some point. The book moves around in time with this event as the center. We see the stories of many players who will all connect by the end but it does take a while to get there. It’s important to be patient as each piece unfurls.
Build Your House Around My Body is not just Winnie’s story. There are many complex characters who all play large roles in the lives of each other. Winnie is just one piece.
The novel defies genre as it blends supernatural elements with real life as though it’s all completely normal. Myths are a part of everyday life and those involved don’t stop to question it much. Fortune tellers, ghost hunters, monsters, and demons all really do exist and have a profound effect on this village.
In addition to being a supernatural horror Build Your House Around My Body is contemporary literature, romance, mystery, thriller, puzzle box, magical realism, and revenge story. Above all else, it is a masterfully crafted novel that spans generations without ever losing a step. Every detail is important and will be addressed by the end.
It gets stranger and stranger until the ending that could be described as beautiful or utterly confusing depending on what kind of reader you are. This book is a modern fairy tale, the ending reflects that. I hope that you’re able to find it satisfying but if you don’t I’d understand that too. Remember, the best books are not made to please every single person.
Keeping notes for the summary of this book honestly helped me a lot. There is a lot to keep track of here and I think it was more satisfying in the end to have so many details jotted down and remembered. It was a lot of fun to have them come back 350 pages later.
I recommend Build Your House Around My Body for anyone who’s looking for something brand new. If you’re bored of reading the same horror story retold over and over again this one will certainly break your rut.
5/5 houses 🏡🏡🏡🏡🏡
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Build Your House Around My Body Synopsis
This novel is fairly complex and weaves around through time. I’ve done my best to mark when the timelines change so that anyone can keep up.
The book starts with the heading June 2010, Saigon. Nine months before Winnie’s disappearance.
All time markers in the book revolve around this point. All we know is that somewhere along the line Winnie will go missing. 9 months before that she arrives in Vietnam from America with just a few changes of clothes.
After the introduction chapter it jumps to the day of the disappearance. She’s been living with a man named Long who returns home to discover that she’s gone. Since she’s essentially been an agoraphobic in the few weeks prior this is surprising to him but he hesitates to call the authorities because he’s not supposed to have a foreigner living with him.
After searching the neighborhood he continues the search through every detail of his home. He discovers a strange wire in his toolbox, covered in blood. Was she murdered? The night before he had a dream that she was a rubber tree sprouting from the kitchen floor. Is she buried there and that was a premonition?
18 years back we find a trio of kids who hustle people at funerals. They find the wrong mark and have a horrifying encounter with some kind of monster man who can unhinge his jaws large enough to swallow them whole. The boys run off scared but the girl, Binh, doesn’t flinch.
7 months before the disappearance Winnie is teaching English and hates everything and everyone in her life. Peer pressure from her family causes her to reluctantly meet with Sang, a successful doctor friend of her brothers.
He’s as uninterested as she is when he arrives to pick her up so he takes her to some key tourist spots to complete the chore. At a pagoda she passes a woman selling lottery tickets whom she finds unnerving. These little moments of characters being uncomfortable are scattered throughout Build Your House Around My Body and aid in creating a tense atmosphere.
In the same time line but a separate location a fortune teller is contacted by a man who’s experiencing a dripping sound in his house that he believes is sentient. They quickly discover that this house is under an extreme haunting.
6 months before Winnie vanishes she meets Long. They get drunk together at a company dinner, he leaves early but offers to pick her up the next day to get her visa renewed.
She is a bit self destructive so she decides to continue drinking and follows the party to karaoke. She gets drunk enough to meet a police officer, tripping out of his mind, in the bathroom where they almost have sex. Still sober enough to not want to have sex on the bathroom floor they return to her small room at her aunt’s place. He ends up just combing her hair until they fall asleep together.
He leaves behind his hat that Winnie will hold on to as a keepsake. She isn’t sure why but she loves to inhale the scent he left behind even though she never learned his name.
The next morning Long shows up and she’s extremely hungover. They go to get her visa taken care of and Long mentions that he lives in a haunted house. Ghosts, spirits, and other paranormal activities play a strong role in this horror novel.
On the day after the disappearance we meet Tan, a captain with the police force matching the description of the one who encountered Winnie. He has just been told that a strange woman is attacking people with his exact name. She’s threatened to continue until she finds the right one. As he talks to the victim he forms a theory that this woman is Binh.
He meets with Dr. Sang, the same from before, who is apparently a pretty bad dude. Sang invented the drug that Tan was high on the night he met Winnie, a potent concoction involving cobra venom. Tan is visiting to ask for protection against the woman, who he thinks might be a ghost, but Sang refuses. Tan settles for drugs to keep him awake instead.
Dr. Sang is revealed to be Long’s brother and all of the connections are falling into place.
9 years before the disappearance Long, Tan, and Binh are all together. We can assume that they are the children from 18 years before as well. Binh impulsively forces them to go on a beach trip with her but they never make it. As they’re camping on the street Long has a dream that he sees Binh hovering in her sleep with smoke coming out of her mouth.
We also learn that both Long and Tan desire Binh despite her being crazy and reckless. There always has to be a jealous love triangle right?
5 months before Winnie vanishes she is living with some other English teachers. She hates them.
69 years before, a man named Jean Francois is abandoned in a forest. He is white and Vietnamese, like Winnie, and got left behind during a survival skills class. While waiting for rescue he is engulfed by a smoke monster which tears his jaws apart and changes his being forever.
3 months before the disappearance an adult student of Winnie’s keeps mentioning that his boss died and smoke released from his mouth. This image haunts her and she isn’t sleeping well. She goes out drinking and wakes to be told that she’s been drugged. She has bruises on her arm and no memories of the night before.
She follows her intuition to a fortune teller named Jean Francois who gives her a cryptic fortune. Then her instincts lead her to Long.
6 years before Winnie’s gone Long, Tan, and Binh are having a dinner with a rich man who knew Long and Tan’s father. He embarrasses Binh and the evening fractures their friendships. Binh wanders into an old rubber plant where she knows they won’t follow. The whole place is known to be overrun with cobras.
62 years back some Frenchmen arrive to build a rubber plant. In a complex show of unrequited love the two friends and owners commit a double suicide. This unintentional ritual sets off a chain reaction that ends with snakes taking over the plant.
2 months before the disappearance Winnie is living with Long. She manipulated him into getting a place to stay and quit her job to have him take care of her. She gets to live rent free in exchange for blow jobs and playing the role of the helpless submissive girl of his dreams.
She becomes agoraphobic and feels a strange attachment to the house. She has to ask for its permission if she ever wants to leave.
She’s forced to leave to visit Long’s family. She meets his grandmother, a woman tied to the rubber plant story. She’s cursed, immobile, very fat, and says that she has eyes that she can move outside of her body. She gives Winnie unprompted permission to marry Long.
30 years before, Binh’s father predicts that his daughter will go missing. Desperate, he calls the fortune teller to come save her. He says he will go into the rubber plant to save her. He transforms into smoke and finds her. To save her, he enters her body and moves her like a puppet to safety. He returns to human form but can’t shake the feeling he left something behind.
Then, Binh has a baby.
The day after the disappearance Tan does a ton of drugs and is mysteriously led to Binh. It’s her, but it’s not her, like in a dream. She brings his nightmares to life before strangling him.
2 years prior Tan meets with Binh for the first time since the falling out. He needs her help catching cobras for Sang. As she’s resting one day he pins her down and kisses her. She jolts up and makes it very clear he is never to do that and then leaves to catch more snakes.
She finally gets bitten by one and Tan attempts to take her to the hospital but it’s too far. He brings her nearly dead body back to her shack. As she’s still breathing but disgustingly transforming into a corpse he kisses her before rolling her into a well.
He returns to retrieve her from the well and attempts to bury her but the ground is too hard. So he tries to smash her into a small hole, when that doesn’t work he burns the whole place down.
The day before Winnie is gone she spontaneously decides to leave the house to free a dog from its fate as a meal in the restaurant across the street. She brings the whole cage back and cuts the bloody wire (remember the wire from the beginning?) from around its snout.
Surprisingly, the dog can speak, or at least Winnie can hear it. The dog says it’s name is the same nickname that Binh used to use. She encourages Winnie to swap bodies so now Winnie is a dog and Binh is in Winnie’s body.
Winnie is unable to maintain this form and she slips out. Binh catches her and they swap back but retain each others’ memories.
They switch again in order to kill Tan. On the way to find him Winnie slips again and becomes nothing but smoke, no more physical form. Binh tells her to “start small” and leaves her. Winnie enters a rat and finds herself finally happy.
3 days after, Binh is in Winnie’s body and takes Long to the beach. He doesn’t recognize her before she turns into a squid and gently floats away.
3 years after the disappearance, Build Your House Around My Body switches to first person, assumedly Binh. She says she never met her child. She is livingly happily now with a partner and a dog.
The ending is simply that Winnie was never happy as a human and gets to enjoy a completely different life. Binh gets her revenge and gets a second chance as well. The women fare well, the men not so much.