BookBrowse Reviews The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam

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The Headmaster's Wager

A Novel

by Vincent Lam

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

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An unforgettable story of love, betrayal and sacrifice set in 1960s Saigon

Vincent Lam's The Headmaster's Wager is a top choice among BookBrowse readers. 16 out of 18 reviewers gave it 4 or 5 stars! Here is what they say:

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…it's my favorite book of the summer (Jen W). Vincent Lam, whose parents and grandparents 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 (Chet Y). I rarely say this, but I think this book was just about perfect. The story was expertly plotted and so tense I sometimes had to put the book down for a moment and take a deep breath, my fear for the characters was so real (Erin G).

Some readers were especially impressed with the depth of Lam's characters:
The thing that really pulled me into the story was its characters; so real, and so human with characters so well drawn that I missed them when away from the book (Linda G). Strikingly original and beautifully written, The Headmaster's Wager is a brilliant and heartbreaking first novel. Percival Chen, the imperfect, barely likeable protagonist, is often frustratingly blind to his own circumstances as he attempts to navigate his way along the quiet edges of the Vietnam War…This is a book that keeps the reader engaged, with well-timed twists and surprises the entire way through. More than that, however, Lam has created characters that feel real and that I care deeply about (Michael F).

Other readers were captivated by the rich history—especially the Vietnam War—that Lam brings to life:
I have been sending reviews to First Impressions for a while, but this is the first time I have ever given a 5 to a book I have read through this program. Extremely well written, this is the Vietnam story told from a point of view never heard before. The war is only a secondary player to the political intrigue and perils of day-to-day living in a country at war (Jane H). This is an engaging and often-gripping story set in Saigon in the late 60s and early 70s. I was quickly immersed in the political turmoil of the times, feeling all the fear and suspicion of a world where brutality and cunning have the upper hand (Joan R). The book is set in Vietnam [when] the 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 (Elizabeth W).

Be aware though, that the story is a little graphic:
I enjoyed Vincent Lam's book and highly recommend it. His characters are complex people who are trying to survive in a hellish war-torn country where "man's inhumanity to man" is part of daily life. I should mention that there were some violent scenes that were gut-wrenching (Jerry P). 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! This is 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 (Linda G)!

Who should read this book?
Vincent Lam's masterful story about the Chinese experience in Vietnam from 1966 to 1975 is both an exploration of the dangers of nationalism and a testimony to the power of love. It captures how difficult it is to know how political/world events are going to end and what we can do to protect ourselves and those we love. I found it to be both captivating and heartbreaking. It would be an outstanding discussion book (Eileen P). I think those with an appreciation for history, and that people are history, will truly enjoy this excellent novel (George M).

This review was originally published in September 2012, and has been updated for the May 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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