1986: The teenage daughter of a wealthy Vietnamese family gets lost in an abandoned rubber plantation while fleeing her angry father, and is forever changed by the experience.
2011: Twenty-five years later, a young, unhappy Vietnamese-American disappears from her new home in Saigon without a trace.
The fates of both women are inescapably linked, bound together by past generations, by ghosts and ancestors, by the history of possessed bodies and possessed lands.
The illusion of safety was an invention of the West.
There are some books where you finish them and put them down and wonder “What exactly was that, I just read?”
And I don’t suggest that as a criticism. Nor do I suggest that this is a bad response. Not at all. But it takes a while to come to grips with it.
And Kupersmith’s novel is one of these. Time jumps, both backwards and forwards. Sudden bursts of the supernatural, possibly inspired by a culture that I am not familiar with, possibly inspired by nothing more than Kupersmith’s fertile imagination. A historical context of colonisation and invasion, by both French and American forces, and the consequences of those. And throw into that a good shot of body horror and two-headed spitting cobras… It is a heady mix. As heady as perhaps the drugs laced with cobra venom that forms part of the novel.
We focus on the mysterious disappearance of Winnie, a dual-heritage young woman who feels neither Vietnamese enough to be at home in Vietnam, nor American enough to be at home in America. She is at one point addressed by her Vietnamese name, Ngoan, and
she flinched when she heard it, and then chastised herself for being taken aback. Of course he would know her by her Vietnamese name; it was what Thien and the rest of her family called her….A jarring cohesion of letters that could not be easily molded into something more Western sounding. In its various distortions on the lips of her American peers and teachers and neighbors growing up, it was a croak, or a yawn interrupted by something phlegmy in the throat.
She arrives in Saigon to teach English, and nine months later disappears – and each chapter is dated around that disappearance. We see her half hearted attempts to teach, her half-hearted sexual encounters, her moving from living with her great aunt to her living with her despised colleagues to her living with her boyfriend.
We also see the character of Binh – who has much more agency than Winnie and I found Kupersmith characterisation of Binh much more engaging – whom we first see attempting to exhort money in a graveyard, along with her friends. Attempt at extortion that is aborted when the victim yawns and starts to transform into a smoke monster
The children waited. Then they realized that the yawn was not stopping; the man’s mouth opened all the way, and then his lower jaw unhinged and kept opening. The skin on his face grew taut and his lips shrank to a thin line, exposing the entirety of his nicotine-yellowed teeth and mottled pink-and-white gums as the mandible dropped farther, farther, down past the neck to the collarbone. The children watched. Terror tightened the boys’ chests and dried sharp and sour in the backs of their own open mouths, but the girl did not move, and her face betrayed no sign of fear.
What I loved is that Kupersmith never explained this smoke monster. It is so evocative and ephemeral – it “could not have its own memories, because it was already a memory of a sort” – that it could stand for anything and everything. Similarly the two-headed cobra. Or even the cowboy hat that flows through the novel.
There is another missing girl, too, from the Ma household, who goes missing in the rubber tree plantation, a generation earlier. Another vignette from that time period, sixty-plus years before Winnie’s disappearance, was the story of Gaspard Valentin Renaud and Jean-Pierre Courcoul Frenchmen who purchase and plant those rubber trees, and their appalling neighbour Louis. Their story was so poignant and so beautifully – if brutally – resolved.
There is so much going on through the novel that it must have been an Herculean task for Kupersmith to manage them all and draw them together and – in the main – she achieved it. The novel’s conclusion is perhaps its weakest point for me: it felt that Kupersmith hadn’t quite managed to think through where she wanted her characters to end up, somehow…
In terms of Kupersmith’s writing, there was perhaps a tendency towards the explanatory and telling above showing a lot of the time. Her descriptions of places and settings, however, especially the more lurid clubs and bars that Winnie found herself in, were vivid and visceral. Taking one example, on a night out with fellow teachers, Winnie visits a club where she meets a policeman from who she acquires the aforementioned cowboy hat.
The ambience of the club, with its membrane-pink walls under hazy aquatic lighting, cavernous ceilings held up by exposed, rib-like joists, and pervasive saline aroma from the many sweaty bodies inside, suggested the interior anatomy of a whale.
Perhaps Winnie’s own intoxication influenced the perception through which Kupersmith wrote, here!
What I Liked
- Kupersmith’s descriptions of place which were vivid and visceral
- The romance and tragedy of Gaspard Valentin Renaud and Jean-Pierre Courcoul
- Binh’s characterisation
- The evocativeness – and horror – of the supernatural elements
What Could Have Been Different
- A slightly stronger resolution and sense that we had come to the end of a journey
- Slightly less telling, more showing