June 24, 2021 12:43 PM EDT

Female bodies have long served as metaphor when we talk about colonization, often standing in for land or the body politic, but rarely are they given the space to seek retribution for the oppressive horrors inflicted on them. That’s not the case in Build Your House Around My Body, Violet Kupersmith’s haunting historical-fiction novel, where the mysterious but linked disappearances of two young women, 25 years apart in Vietnam, set the stage for a tale of vengeance—not only for each of them, but also for their land and their people.

To tell this story, Kupersmith, who also wrote the short-story collection The Frangipani Hotel, delves deep into Vietnamese folklore and history. She combines the two with magical realism to create a sensual world that is familiar yet supernatural, populated with a dense web of time-traveling characters—from the aimless biracial Vietnamese-American expatriate who came to Saigon to teach English to the foreboding fortune teller who performs exorcisms—who each hunt for freedom from their dark histories, both personal and political over the course of a century in Vietnam. There is no shortage of nuanced story lines that delve into the strange or the spooky in this book. In fact, this might be the book’s biggest shortcoming: Kupersmith’s interconnected spheres are complex and intensely visceral at their best, but often confusing in their sheer number and vastness.

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In spite of this, Kupersmith’s knack for drawing readers into the fantastical is readily apparent, as is her ability to deftly navigate the subtleties of a country’s complicated history, rife with violence and generational trauma in the wake of French colonization.

Perhaps the most cogent examples of this are the haunted beings Kupersmith conjures to tell her tale of agency and autonomy stolen and then reclaimed. Bodies are possessed and otherworldly creatures abound—among them a fearsome smoke monster and a two-headed cobra (those with ophidiophobia may find themselves squirming for much of the book)—but Kupersmith’s dexterous, sensitive storytelling ensures that readers understand clearly that the real monsters of this tale are those who seek to take by force what does not belong to them.

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Write to Cady Lang at cady.lang@timemagazine.com.

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