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Where do you belong? Who are you, really? These, the questions that Winnie, the central protagonist of Violet Kupersmith’s debut novel, has unwittingly set herself as she lands in Saigon from the US before commencing on a lacklustre career as an English teacher at a local language school. It soon becomes clear that this is not the stable, realist world that the finely worked prose might suggest as Winnie makes her way into her first night in Saigon, looking for a room in a sex hotel in order to keep costs down. The novel is framed around Winnie’s disappearance, which anchors the timeline between chapters that otherwise jump through time, space, and point of view. And as quotidian as Winnie’s daily life in Saigon seems at first, this is also a place where ghosts linger underground disrupting the traffic and where cobras are set loose and roam unseen along the pipes and drains and into the mythic heart of the tale.
This beguiling novel is no flight from reality, however; it is too involved with the physical business of being alive for that. The trials and tribulations of the body with all its sights, smells, and inescapable desires occupies Winnie in particular, including plenty of sweat, vomit, toilet water, and a smorgasbord of varying culinary experiences. Winnie is Vietnamese-American, and if she feels that she doesn’t entirely fit in in the US or with her family, it soon becomes clear she doesn’t feel she can entirely fit in Saigon either, and nor does she particularly want to. Seemingly intent on escaping her own body, Winnie wears sackcloth dresses, cuts her hair into jagged lines, and enjoys disappearing into the shadows of the room, all of which raise the early questions: Why, Winnie? Why? And what’s to become of you?
At the language school she is routinely confused with the “other” Vietnamese-American girl, Dao, whom she imagines men would consider to be a better version of herself and who does indeed initially snare the interest of her soon-to-be boyfriend, Long. As Winnie finds some Dutch courage on some frenetic evenings out, she slip-slides into troubled and troubling nights; on that score at least, the men of the novel certainly never fail to disappoint. A sense of sadness around the difficulty of connection with men (but not only with men) infuses the tale generally and is deftly rendered, echoing various contemporary works on the same theme.
It was no surprise to learn that Kupersmith’s debut book, The Frangipani Hotel, was a collection of short stories featuring mythic Vietnamese tales that was very well received. Kupersmith is a gifted writer, and each chapter here has the finely tuned workings of a short story, each turn always propels the reader forwards, which is necessary considering the complications of the plot. Winnie’s disappearance is just one of three; another girl was lost in a rubber plantation long ago, and another, the feisty Binh, disappeared with Winnie’s boyfriend’s heart, although she seems intent on reappearing with increasingly demonic force. The brave and engaging country girl, Binh, could have been given a lot more space in the novel, in my opinion. Every chapter that she is involved in has extra energy, and the love triangle between Binh, Long, and his brother, Tan, is beautifully set up, offering us some rare hope of real connection and allowing us to get close to Long, who is by far the novel’s most sympathetic male character.
This, says Kupersmith, is a revenge novel, and it ends up turning around the various ways a woman’s body is requisitioned, transgressed, betrayed. How, it asks, can a woman find a home in the world when the very home of her body is constantly under threat? If that sounds heavy, the experience of reading the book is not; Kupersmith’s chapters coil around the reader ensnaring us in a hunt for something, even if I wasn’t always sure what. History, myth, and the reality of women’s lives converge in Kupersmith’s writerly imagination in rich, unexpected ways. Colonialism, patriarchy, misogyny: These three strands curl into one bind that cuts off the oxygen of the central women in the piece, and in order to escape they need to be just as inventive as the workings of Kupersmith’s plot.
The variety of characters and settings can become disorientating, which, whilst sometimes difficult, is surely deliberate. You can never get too cosy reading this book. Just as you think you’ve got things figured out, the next chapter takes you somewhere totally unexpected, and, like the characters involved, you’ve just got to go along with the increasingly dyspeptic ride. Kupersmith demonstrates that she is great at the close-up contemporary experience, but she also pans back in time in impressive ways, too. References to Ho Chi Minh are peppered throughout, but those readers with the concentration span will find themselves at the heart of the story in the colonial French highlands. Here we experience a primary wound in the personal and political injustice involved in requisitioning land, as well as a family betrayal, too; a horror that is held in the tangled heart of the rubber tree forest and that creates a haunting loss that resounds throughout the years; a venomous terror powered by the hidden, dark spaces of the forgotten and the wronged.
As noted, Kupersmith’s detail is a strength, yet the visceral detail and sense of place that sometimes overly fills earlier chapters may have been more usefully employed towards the latter part of the novel, where the byzantine workings of the story become less moored to our daily reality. Here, the fantastical situations are sometimes sketched a little too briefly or feel overly convenient, which is a shame. When Kupersmith does use her considerable skill to place us in a new, physically impossible situation that is also closely rendered, it is a powerful experience, something that feels genuinely new. For example, I now feel like I have lived experience of being a rat, I almost want to be a rat, so persuasive is her writing. That there wasn’t as much of this kind of detail in the final chapters won’t be a problem for many, but personally, it led me to detach a little at the end, which isn’t ideal.
Perhaps it wasn’t just that. My own slight detachment came just as Kupersmith’s women detached from their own corporeal binds and from space and time, definitively moving us into a different realm of reality. Whilst there is no doubt that Kupersmith vividly has rendered her revenge in ways that many will find satisfying, I still felt I wanted just a little bit more. Not in terms of happenings but perhaps in terms of a finale that felt viable and satisfying without breaking the laws of physics, and that would therefore be pertinent to women now. Perhaps, though, Kupersmith has reached a kind of clearsighted yet unpalatable truth through this fiction: that a satisfying resolution for her lost girls and women just wouldn’t have been possible inside our version of space and time. Perhaps that is the point. Instead, her tale offers release through a wide imaginative lens, allowing a kind of freedom to women and girls who would otherwise remain trapped in a hazardous corporeal reality for good. Our reality. This juxtaposition offers quite a lot to reflect on in the end, and Kupersmith achieves it in a way that is never heavy-handed; quite a feat for any debut novelist. Who knows where her impressive imagination may take us next.
Build Your House around My Body
By Violet Kupersmith
400 pages, One World Publications