Reading guide for The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam

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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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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. How does Lam bring the world of 1960's Saigon to life, using the senses of sound, smell, and taste? What passages were most viscerally powerful for you?
  2. Lam wrote this novel using third-person limited narration, meaning that although it is not told in Percival's voice, readers have access to only his thoughts and observations, and not those of other characters. How did this technique affect the experience of reading this story? Could it have been as effectively told in first-person, or using an omniscient narrative that allows insight into other character's feelings?
  3. Early in the novel, Percival instructs Dai Jai to remain invisible, saying that as overseas Chinese, "we are safer when we remain quiet." What do you think of this strategy, as war encroaches on their community? Is it possible? Is it moral?
  4. Percival frequently finds ways to justify his bad behaviours, often blaming others. Do you think he always believes his own rationalizations? What is your opinion about the quality of his character? What made him this way? Can he find redemption?
  5. Why does Percival agree to go along with Mak's undercover activities? What is his motivation?
  6. What is the significance of the one-eyed monk who begs near the school each day? What does he mean to Percival?
  7. Discuss the role of fathers, and the impact of their absences, throughout the novel.
  8. After Percival witnesses the immolation of the priest at the zoo, he has a nightmare. Did you know it was just a dream, or did you think it was real as you read it? Given what happens next, what do you make of this dream?
  9. Near the novel's close, Percival tells Laing Jai "Once you have left a place, you can never go back... the place of your memories will have vanished, and you will have new memories." What do you think of this statement? Do you agree?
  10. Discuss the significance of the title. In your opinion, which is the most significant of the headmaster's wagers? What has been your own greatest wager in life so far?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Hogarth Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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