Vincent Lam, the son of parents and grandparents that lived in an expatriate Chinese community in Vietnam, is especially suited to write “The Headmaster’s Wager”. Lam’s stories of a Chinese’ minority’s existence in Vietnam has bell ringing clarity and concrete believability in “The Headmaster’s Wager”.
Percival Chen is an entrepreneur who chooses to ignore political reality by following whatever political rules exist in the country in which he lives. Percival lives and prospers as a hedonistic owner of an English language company during the American occupation of Vietnam. He teaches in his own school and schemes to become a preferred language school at the time when Americans endeavor to win the hearts and minds of the indigenous population. (How similar that sounds to America’s efforts in Iraq.) Percival is also a problem gambler that risks everything for the thrill of winning. The main character of Lam’s novel makes anyone that has gambled recognize the thrill of wagering all one has--to change one’s luck. Percival copes with Vietnamese discrimination, Vietcong brutality, and American ineptitude to survive and prosper in his adopted county.
“The Headmaster’s Wager” is a journey of imagination, grounded by tales told to the author in his research of the Lam family’s fascinating history. This is a nicely written book that will entertain casual readers, gamblers, male chauvinists, war critics, and Maoist China haters; “The Headmaster’s Wager” should rise to the top of the “New York Times” best seller list.
Elizabeth W. (Newton, MA)
Visit to another land . . .
The language of The Headmaster’s Wager is as intoxicating and seductive as the opium and morphine that trap the first father-and-son pair around whom the story centers. The plot is tight and fast-paced enough to make one tempted to read through the pages quickly, but it is worth taking time to savor Vincent Lam’s imagery and insights.
The book is set in Viet Nam during the time that United States military was fighting there. As a young adolescent at that time, I learned about the war through a limited perspective; this novel enlarges that view as much as the histories I’ve read since then. The Headmaster’s Wager not only tells a very personal story of love and loss but also reveals the intrusion of the Chinese and the French into the world of the Vietnamese and also the disparity between the excessive luxury enjoyed by the rich and the extreme deprivation of the poor.
Like protagonist Percival, I was surprised by the deception lurking at the core of his world and the extent to which political and philosophical connections trumped personal friendship. Lam presents moments of brutality that are all the more shocking because of their juxtaposition with serene domestic moments that Percival shares with his mistress and son.
Once I escaped the immediate pull of the story, my first thought was that there is no way a woman could have written this book. Even more than might have been dictated by the Chinese and Vietnamese cultures at its center, the book presents a man’s world. There are striking women, but they are important only as they are used by and affect the lives of the men; they seem to have no intrinsic value of their own. The deep emotional bonds are between son and father and between two male friends.
I enjoyed visiting the man’s world of The Headmaster’s Wager as I enjoy a trip to an unknown land—fascinating to see but very unfamiliar.
Linda G. (Walnut Creek, CA)
Thrilled to have the chance to read this!
I absolutely LOVED Vincent Lam's novel "The Headmaster's Wager"! I can honestly say it is the best book I've read so far this year! In reading the synopsis of it, it sounded right up my alley, and it did not disappoint.
The novel focuses mainly on a Chinese man living in Cholon, Vietnam during the 60's when he was headmaster of an English Academy. It also touches on the history of both China and Vietnam during that time period, in prose that is both vivid and exciting, giving the book a wonderful sense of place and culture. However, the thing that really pulled me into the story were its characters. So real, and so human, though somewhat flawed, I still found myself immensely involved in their worlds. Characters so well drawn that I missed them when away from the book. Headmaster Chen especially, since he learns so many difficult and life altering lessons, causing him to wager much over the course of his life. But it's the twist near the end of the story, where he is forced to learn what's most valuable to him, leading to the ultimate sacrifice that nearly took my breath away. There's several scenes in the book that, though disturbing, were so carefully wrought and beautifully portrayed that I had to read them over a second time, in spite of the gut punch feeling that left me breathless the first time!
A gorgeously written epic of a fathers' love for his son that haunts me still. I can't wait to recommend this book to friends and family!
Jen W. (Denver, CO)
A Sure Bet for a Great Read
The Headmaster's Wager is a well-crafted, deeply engaging book - one that I read in only two sittings because it was that hard to put it down.
Reading a novel where the story is about an individual paying little attention to the war unless it served his business opportunities provided a whole new perspective on both the Vietnam War and how individuals deal with political events around them. Percival served as a striking metaphor for societies that ignore human events around them in service of their own interests. Lam makes Percival's character aptly complex, so it was easy to be drawn completely into his life and understand his motivations. His love for his son, coupled with his continued choices to ignore events around him, made him a character that I couldn't easily turn away from. Lam's coupling of Percival with the character Mak, who operated from totally different motivations, made the story far from superficial or trite.
This is my favorite book of the summer. It is one I will recommend to my picky reader friends. I also promptly ordered his other book because his writing is so terrific.
The writing is very strong: compelling, authentic and highly interesting.