Summary and book reviews of The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam

The Headmaster's Wager

A Novel

by Vincent Lam

The Headmaster's Wager
  • Critics' Opinion:

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  • First Published:
    Aug 2012, 416 pages
    May 2013, 448 pages

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Book Summary

A superbly crafted, highly suspenseful, and deeply affecting debut novel about one man's loyalty to his country, his family and his heritage

Percival Chen is the headmaster of the most respected English academy in 1960s Saigon, and he is well accustomed to bribing a forever-changing list of government officials in order to maintain the elite status of his school. Fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage, he is quick to spot the business opportunities rife in a divided country, though he also harbors a weakness for gambling haunts and the women who frequent them. He devotedly ignores all news of the fighting that swirls around him, but when his only son gets in trouble with the Vietnamese authorities, Percival faces the limits of his connections and wealth and is forced to send him away.

In the loneliness that follows, Percival finds solace in Jacqueline, a beautiful woman of mixed French and Vietnamese heritage whom he is able to confide in. But Percival's new-found happiness is precarious, and as the complexities of war encroach further into his world, he must confront the tragedy of all he has refused to see.

Graced with intriguingly flawed but wonderfully human characters moving through a richly drawn historical landscape, The Headmaster's Wager is an unforgettable story of love, betrayal and sacrifice.

1930, shantou, china

On a winter night shortly after the New Year festivities, Chen Kai sat on the edge of the family kang, the brick bed. He settled the blanket around his son.

Gwai jai,” he said. Well- behaved boy. “Close your eyes.”

“Sit with me?” said Chen Pie Sou with a yawn. “You promised . . .”

“I will.” He would stay until the boy slept. A little more delay. Muy Fa had insisted that Chen Kai remain for the New Year celebration, never mind that the coins from their poor autumn’s harvest were almost gone. What few coins there were, after the landlord had taken his portion of the crop. Chen Kai had conceded that it would be bad luck to leave just before the holiday and agreed to stay a little longer. Now, a few feet away in their one- room home, Muy Fa scraped the tough skin of rice from the bottom of the pot for the next day’s porridge. Chen Kai smoothed his son’s hair. “If you are to ...

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...
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BookBrowse Review


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.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers).

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Media Reviews

Kirkus Reviews

Lam writes tellingly about intrigue, political collusion and the clash of cultures.


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.

Publisher's Weekly

Starred Review. Lam depicts a world caught in an implacable cycle of violence, leavened only by the grace of a father's love.

Library Journal

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.

Shelf Awareness

A vivid, palpable and lyrical document evoking a forgotten segment of modern Vietnamese history. An unforgettable portrait of love, betrayal and sacrifice.

The Globe and Mail (Canada)

Hugely impressive… powerful and engrossing… The Headmaster's Wager has the makings of a masterpiece.

The Toronto Star

A novel of many twists and turns, full of people who aren't what they appear to be… Lam has created a hypnotically tragic tale, epic in scope.

Quill & Quire (Canada)

Lam has created a genuine page-turner. The author takes full advantage of the inherent suspense as the fall of Saigon looms and Chen finally realizes that he and his family may not survive the violence of the Viet Cong. The Headmaster's Wager is a novel full of surprises and excitement.

The Montreal Gazette

It's [the] street-level view of a story we're more accustomed to viewing in panorama that ultimately makes Lam's novel so effective and affecting. In stages so subtle they're scarcely noticeable until he's got you fully in his grip, Lam combines elements of historical fiction, political thriller and domestic drama to present one of the 20th century's defining stories in a whole new way.

Reader Reviews

Carmen S. (Elkins, Arkansas)

Deeply moving
A beautiful, well told story.

Michael F. (Providence, RI)

A beautiful debut
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 ...   Read More

Carole V. (West Linn, Oregon)

Best book all summer!
This books takes place in Viet Nam at the end of the war; Percival is the headmaster of an elite school teaching English to students so they can be translators for the Americans. Percival turns a blind eye to events around him until it is too late. ...   Read More

Diane S.

The Headmaster's wager
This was an amazing and original take on a historical novel because it is told from the viewpoint of a Chinese schoolteacher in Vietnam. Percival is a gambler, a womanizer, oblivious and frustratingly obtuse, yet I could not quite dislike him because...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Dr. Vincent Lam Tells his Grandfather's Story

Although Dr. Vincent Lam was born in Canada, he is "of the expatriate Chinese community of Vietnam." Lam is an emergency physician in Toronto, as well as a lecturer with the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto. Other medical jobs have included international air evacuation and expedition medicine on Arctic and Antarctic ships. Lam has written non-fiction and short stories; The Headmaster's Wager is his first novel.

Dr. Vincent Lam The book is inspired by the experiences of Lam's grandfather. Although Lam did not grow up in Vietnam, his parents were born there, and his grandfather lived and worked there. Lam grew up listening to stories about life in Vietnam and specifically about the Vietnam War. The stories were ...

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