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The Headmaster's Wager

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The Headmaster's Wager

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Lam’s latest (after Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures) is a masterfully paced exploration of a world convulsed by war, wherein faith and reason no longer hold sway. Percival Chen, an affluent Chinese English instructor in late 1960s Saigon, is determined to escape the politics of war-torn Vietnam, profiting from the sidelines instead. He instructs his son, Dai Jai, to remain faithful only to their Chinese heritage, not realizing that even this allegiance has become a deadly liability. Obeying his father’s edict, Dai Jai is arrested by Vietnamese authorities, and Percival exhausts his shady connections in his attempts to rescue Dai Jai from the brutality of the police. Meanwhile, Percival falls in love with Jacqueline—a mixed-race prostitute with ulterior motives—despite the objections of his loyal friend Mak, a man embroiled in his own mysterious affairs. Lam marshals his characters with humor, suspense, and tenderness as the fall of Saigon looms. Even as Percival navigates the minefield of shifting ideologies, treachery, and paranoia—incurring one inconceivable cost upon another—his devotion suffuses every page. Lam depicts a world caught in an implacable cycle of violence, leavened only by the grace of a father’s love. Agent: Christy Fletcher. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
“[A] sumptuously plotted first novel... Lam goes for the jugular, combining an operatic love story…with evocations of Vietnam’s occupation by the Japanese and the later horrors of the Vietcong’s persecution of the city of Hue… His most provocative character is the shadowy Teacher Mak, Chen’s longtime aide-de-camp, whose shifting masks of comrade and adversary potently embody the intricate survival tactics required of aliens afloat in a country of fractured allegiances.” –New York Times Book Review

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

"A masterfully paced exploration of a world convulsed by war, wherein faith and reason no longer hold sway...Lam marshals his characters with humor suspense, and tenderness as the fall of Saigon looms...[and] depicts a world caught in an implacable cycle of violence, leavened only by the grace of a father's love." – Publishers Weekly (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.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“With The Headmaster's Wager, Lam has produced a grand, sweeping saga that vividly re-creates 40 crucial years of Asian history from Japanese invasion to the “freeing” of South Vietnam.” —San Antonio Express
 
“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.” —Booklist
 
 “Lam writes tellingly about intrigue, political collusion and the clash of cultures.” Kirkus

“A first novel of astonishing force, craft and beauty, The Headmaster's Wager conjures up a dizzyingly evocative wartime Saigon in the story of Percival Chen, a Chinese schoolmaster in Vietnam.  This extraordinary book made me weep.  Read it.” – Janice Y.K. Lee, author of the New York Times bestseller The Piano Teacher

“Set in 1960s Saigon, this debut follows a haughty, corrupt school official whose grave mistake makes him a target of the Vietcong.” –Entertainment Weekly

“Hugely impressive…powerful and engrossing…The Headmaster’s Wager has the makings of a masterpiece.” – The Globe and Mail
 
“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.” – The Toronto Star
 
“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.” – The Montreal Gazette

Library Journal
With his first novel, 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. Lam's straightforward prose draws readers into wartime Saigon, where everyone is on the take and choosing the wrong allies can prove deadly. Percival Chan, a second-generation Chinese immigrant, is a womanizer, compulsive gambler, and pompous hypocrite with a hilariously mean ex-wife. Chan barely maintains a semblance of propriety for the sake of his highly regarded English-language school. Oblivious to the intrigue around him, he has a torrid affair with a Vietnamese métisse and becomes a pawn used by complex political forces. Chan raises money to ransom his son from torture, and risks everything in high-stakes mah-jong. But his cool head at the gambling table serves him well. VERDICT Readers who enjoyed Denis Johnson's The Tree of Smoke will appreciate this Vietnamese view of the conflict.—Reba Leiding, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA
Kirkus Reviews
The Chinese headmaster of an English language academy tries to keep body, soul and school together in Saigon during the Vietnam War. Chen Pie Sou, also known as Percival, is supremely aware of being an outsider. His father had moved to Vietnam in the 1930s to start a new life in the rice trade, and when that dried up during the Japanese occupation, his son eventually decided to go in a new direction. Although Percival's marriage to his socially superior wife, Cecilia, began in derision and ended in failure, he had a son, Dai Jai, that he doted on. The novel opens with Dai Jai as a young man, flouting the recent edict that forces the teaching of Vietnamese at the school. Percival has always taught his son to assert himself, but his Chinese identity turns out to be dangerous in Saigon in the 1960s, so Percival smuggles Dai Jai out of the country and back to China. Percival also feels his son might be getting too close to Vietnamese girls, and he wants to ensure that his son chooses a Chinese wife. With Dai Jai gone, Percival takes up with an extremely attractive student, Jacqueline, who's half-French and half-Vietnamese. They begin a fiery affair that culminates in her pregnancy. She gives birth a month before her time, precisely at the explosion of the Tet Offensive in 1968, when Percival is on a Viet Cong list of those to be assassinated as a collaborator with the Americans, and while he escapes this time, further revelations are in store--that Bak, his faithful friend and employee since the Japanese occupation, is actually in league with the Viet Cong, has been spying on Percival, and has encouraged graduates of the school to work with the Viet Cong to intercept and translate American military orders. Lam writes tellingly about intrigue, political collusion and the clash of cultures.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307986467
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/14/2012
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 6.64 (w) x 9.32 (h) x 1.47 (d)

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 16, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    This novel is too much for me to summarize- I'll leave that to t

    This novel is too much for me to summarize- I'll leave that to the folks above. For me, there is no choice but to give it novel five stars. I really liked it and admired the work that went into The Headmaster's Wager. I often wanted to tell the main character TO STOP! what he was doing, but the fact is that his behavior had a reality to it that could not be denied. I realize that the author gets to decide, in most case, which of his characters lives or dies, and I can't say that I always liked his choices. But the novel is so rich, so colorful so genuinely historic, so full of emotion and spirit, that it is a winner, one to be recommended to all. You never knew Saigon before you read The Headmaster's Wager. Well, unless you served there during the war, then you might well know a lot!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 7, 2012

    Excellent

    This is a very good book. The story is fascinating (the plot is well outlined elsewhere), and as it unfolds the book is difficult to put down. The setting, Vietnam from the 1930's through the 70's, brings back memories of the war for us aging baby boomers who grew up in the 60's and 70's. And it is a terrific look at the 20th century history of Indochina as well as a glimpse into the culture of the Chinese community in and near Saigon (which most of us know nothing about). There's some violence (how could there not be during these tumultuous years) and some sex, but Lam's fine writing never descends into vulgarity. I highly recommend this book to all but the youngest readers.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 21, 2012

    Any extraordinary book. It manages to bring the Vietnam War era

    Any extraordinary book. It manages to bring the Vietnam War era to life through the eyes of a long term Chinese immigrant to Vietnam. The focus is really on the impact the American involvement had on the local population and most importantly how they fared as America reduced its commitment. A very humane and in many ways tragic story, it was hard to put down. Having been to Saigon or as it's now called Ho Chi Min city recently, it answered many questions. I could not recommend it highly enough.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 31, 2013

    This book is wonderfully written! And vividly detailed. Once s

    This book is wonderfully written! And vividly detailed. Once started you will not want to put it down! For all you historical novel readers, this is a must! I give it 5 out of 5 stars. I hope Vincent Lam continues to write novels such as this.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2012

    This book is a mind blower! The characters are complex, the sto

    This book is a mind blower! The characters are complex, the story full of history good and bad. It's a disturbing story but I really loved this book, please read it!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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    Posted October 11, 2014

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 8, 2014

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