Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Headmaster's Wager, Dr. Vincent Lam (4.5 stars)

About The Headmaster’s Wager

Hardcover: 432 pages
Publisher: Hogarth (August 14, 2012)
Amazon Buy Link

Percival Chen is the wealthy headmaster of the most respected English-language academy in Saigon in 1966. Chen is fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage, and quick to spot the business opportunities rife in a divided country. He builds a rich life for himself and his only son, Dai Jai, through his many contacts and clever negotiations. But Chen also has many failings: he is a bon vivant, a compulsive gambler at the high-stakes mahjongg tables, and has a taste for drink, as well as a weakness for women.

When Dai Jai gets into trouble with the Vietnamese authorities, Chen faces the limits of his connections and is forced to send him back to China, albeit reluctantly. In the loneliness that follows, Chen finds solace in Jacqueline, a beautiful woman of mixed French and Vietnamese heritage. But Chen’s new-found happiness is precarious, and as the complexities of war encroach further into his world, he is forced to confront the escalating tragedy around him.

THE HEADMASTER’S WAGER illuminates the experiences of the Chinese community within Vietnam, at a time when Asian traditions and world events collided, the emotional dynamics of inter-racial romances in wartime Vietnam, and the activities of the Vietnamese secret police during the war. This sweeping novel also vividly recounts the Japanese occupation of China, the French colonization of Vietnam, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Lam masterfully brings these major historical events to life through a story that explores both the complexities of war and the enduring bond between a father and son.


Beautifully written, the words like paint strokes on a detailed painting. Percival Chan appears to have a life many would envy, especially in the midst of war and poverty. He has accumulated wealth and good standing as the Headmaster of an English-teaching academy. But his former wife never cared for him, and his son's moment of defiance creates devastating long-term problems. For all his failings, including gambling and prostitutes, he loves his son and will stop at nothing to keep him safe.

Percival nearly loses everything to get his son to safety. In the process of rebuilding and paying off debts after, he falls in love in the most unexpected place and embraces fatherhood yet again. Nothing is simple, however, in a complicated web of war, alliances, and basic survival.

Forgive me for simplifying, because this novel is a gorgeous and intricate story of a flawed but good man trying to find his place in Vietnam. His heart and loyalty remain in China, but his view of it was formed in childhood ideology. Percival places his trust in his friend and teacher at the Academy, Mak. Even when he senses his friend's nefarious connections, he ignores them in the guise of brotherhood. All he cares about is that Mak has always helped him; he turns a blind eye to the details. Those details later came back to both haunt him and save him.

That's just what Percival is... a haunted man. Haunted by constant nightmares, the past, and his own mistakes. Yet through it all, he is a character you can't shake. For all his flaws, he is devoted and loving. His focus on wealth drives him, but love is what he  truly craves. Yet, it's what alludes him for so long. Later in the novel, when he attempts to cover his pain with drugs, he realizes, "Drifting from pill to pill was to live underwater, a false life beneath the surface of the real one, intruded upon by distant words and colored shadows."

The Headmaster's Wager is an intense historical course with equal parts action and emotion. Although a bit slow to start, thanks to the author's intricately laid background, it's a ride worth taking. I highly recommend.

Rating: 4.5 stars

About Dr. Vincent Lam

DR. VINCENT LAM is from the expatriate Chinese community of Vietnam. Born in Canada, Lam is an emergency physician and a lecturer with the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto. He has also worked in international air evacuation and expedition medicine on Arctic and Antarctic ships. Dr. Lam’s first book, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, won the 2006 Giller Prize and has been adapted for television and broadcast on HBO Canada..

Thanks to TLC Tours for my review copy.

Note: I received a complimentary copy for review purposes. A positive review was not requested or guaranteed; the opinions expressed are my own.

Please visit other stops on The Headmaster's Wager Blog Tour page.


Additional praise for The Headmaster's Wager

“A masterfully paced exploration of a world convulsed by war, wherein faith and reason no longer hold sway…Lam marshals his characters with humor, suspense, and tenderness.”–Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Lam, winner of the Scotiabank Giller prize for his short story collection Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures, has created a tour de force that reaches from the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong to the American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975.”–Library Journal, starred review

“Lam writes tellingly about intrigue, political collusion and the clash of cultures.”–Kirkus

“In his first novel, Lam provides both an unusual perspective on the Vietnam War and a sweeping story of one man’s brutal education in realpolitik.”–Booklist 


Anonymous said...

Percival sounds like a character that will really stick with readers for a long time. I love those kind!

Thanks for being on the tour.