Excerpt from The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Headmaster's Wager

A Novel

by Vincent Lam

The Headmaster's Wager
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2012, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2013, 448 pages

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Chen Pie Sou addressed his son in their native Teochow dialect, “Son, you must not forget that you are Chinese,” and stared at him.

“Ba?”

He saw Dai Jai’s hands twitch, then settle. “You have been seen with a girl. Here. In my school.”

“There are . . . many girls here at your school, Father.” Dai Jai’s right hand went to his neck, fiddled with the gold chain, on which hung the family good luck charm.

“Annam nuy jai, hai um hai?” An Annamese girl, isn’t it? It was not entirely the boy’s fault. The local beauties were so easy with their smiles and favors. “At your age, emotions can be reckless.”

The balcony door swung open and Foong Jie, the head servant, appeared with her silver serving tray. She set one bowl of thin rice noodles before Percival. She placed another in front of Dai Jai. Percival nodded at the servant.

Each bowl of noodles was crowned by a rose of raw flesh, the thin petals of beef pink and ruffled. Foong Jie put down dishes of bean sprouts, of mint, purple basil leaves on the stem, hot peppers, and halved limes with which to dress the bowls. She arranged an urn of fragrant broth, chilled glasses, the coffee pot that rattled with ice cubes, and a dish of cut papayas and mangos. Percival did not move to touch the food, and so neither did his son, whose eyes were now cast down. The master looked to Foong Jie, tilted his head toward the door, and she slipped away.

Percival addressed his son in a concerned low voice. “Is this true? That you have become . . . fond of an Annamese?”

Dai Jai said, “You have always told me to tutor weaker students.” In that, thought Percival, was a hint of evasion, a boy deciding whether to lie.

Percival waved off a fly, poured broth from the urn onto his noodles, added tender basil leaves, bright red peppers, and squeezed a lime into his bowl. With the tips of his chopsticks, he drowned the meat beneath the surface of the steaming liquid, and loosened it with a small motion of his wrist. Already the flesh was cooked, the stain of blood a haze, which vanished into the fragrant broth. Dai Jai prepared his bowl in the same way. He peered deep into the soup and gathered noodles onto his spoon, lifted it to his mouth, swallowed mechanically. On the boy’s face, anguish. So it was a real first love, the boy afraid to lose her. But this could not go on. Less painful to cut it early. Percival told himself to be firm for the boy’s own good.

From the square below came the shouts of a customer’s complaint, and a breakfast porridge seller’s indignant reply. Percival waited for the argument outside to finish, then said, “What subject did Teacher Mak see you tutoring, yesterday after classes?” Mak, Percival’s most trusted employee and closest friend, told him that Dai Jai and a student had been holding hands in an empty classroom. When Percival had asked, Mak had said that she was not Chinese. “Mak indicated that it was not a school subject being taught.” Percival saw perspiration bead on Dai Jai’s temples. The sun was climbing quickly, promising a hot day, but Percival knew that this heat came from within the boy.

The sweat on Dai Jai’s face ran a jagged path down his cheeks. He looked as if he was about to speak, but then he took another mouthful of food, stuffed himself to prevent words.

“Yes, let’s eat,” said Percival. Though in the past few years, Dai Jai had sprung up to slightly surpass his father’s height, he was still gangly, his frame waiting for his body to catch up. Though everyone complimented Dai Jai on his resemblance to his father, Percival recognized in his silence his mother’s stubbornness. The father’s duty was to correct the son, Percival assured himself. When the boy was older, he would see that his father was right.

Excerpted from The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam. Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Lam. Excerpted by permission of Hogarth Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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