The Headmaster's Wager

The Headmaster's Wager

5.0 9
by Vincent Lam

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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

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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.

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

“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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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 grow big and strong, you must sleep.” Chen Pie Sou was as tall as his father’s waist. He was as big as any boy of his age, for his parents often accepted the knot of hunger in order to feed him.
“Why . . .” A hesitation, the choosing of words. “Why must I grow big and strong?” A fear in the tone, of his father’s absence.
“For your ma, and your ba.” Chen Kai tousled his son’s hair. “For China.”
Later that night, Chen Kai was to board a train. In the morning, he would arrive at the coast, locate a particular boat. A village connection, a cheap passage without a berth. Then, a week on the water to reach Cholon. This place in Indochina was just like China, he had heard, except with money to be made, from both the Annamese and their French rulers.
With his thick, tough fingers, Chen Kai fumbled to undo the charm that hung from his neck. He reached around his son’s neck as if to embrace him, carefully knotted the strong braid of pig gut. Chen Pie Sou searched his chest, and his hand recognized the family good luck charm, a small, rough lump of gold.
“Why does it have no design, ba?” said Chen Pie Sou. He was surprised to be given this valuable item. He knew the charm. He also knew the answers to his questions. “Why is it just a lump?”
“Your ancestor found it this way. He left it untouched rather than having it struck or moulded, to remind his descendants that one never knows the form wealth takes, or how luck arrives.”
“How did he find it?” Chen Pie Sou rubbed its blunted angles and soft contours with the tips of his fingers. It was the size of a small lotus seed. He pressed it into the soft place in his own throat. Nearby, his mother, Muy Fa, sighed with impatience. Chen Pie Sou liked to ask certain things, despite knowing the response.
“He pried it from the Gold Mountain in a faraway country. This was the first nugget. Much more was unearthed, in a spot everyone had abandoned. The luck of this wealth brought him home.”
It was cool against Chen Pie Sou’s skin. Now, his right hand gripped his father’s. “Where you are going, are there mountains of gold?”
“That is why I’m going.”
“Ba,” said Chen Pie Sou intently. He pulled at the charm. “Take this with you, so that its luck will keep you safe and bring you home.”
“I don’t need it. I’ve worn it for so long that the luck has worked its way into my skin. Close your eyes.”
“I’m not sleepy.”
“But in your dreams, you will come with me. To the Gold Mountain.”
Chen Kai added a heaping shovel of coal to the embers beneath the kang. Muy Fa, who always complained that her husband indulged their son, made a soft noise with her tongue.
“Don’t worry, dear wife. I will find so much money in Indochina that we will pile coal into the kang all night long,” boasted Chen Kai. “And we will throw out the burned rice in the bottom of that pot.”
“You will come back soon?” asked Chen Pie Sou, his eyes closed now. Chen Kai squeezed his son’s shoulder. “Sometimes, you may think I am far away. Not so. Whenever you sleep, I am with you in your dreams.”
 “But when will you return?”
“As soon as I have collected enough gold.”
“How much?”
“Enough . . . at the first moment I have enough to provide for you, and your mother, I will be on my way home.”
The boy seized his father’s hand in both of his. “Ba, I’m scared.”
“Of what?”
“That you won’t come back.”
“Shh . . . there is nothing to worry about. Your ancestor went to the Gold Mountain, and this lump around your neck proves that he came back. As soon as I have enough to provide for you, I will be back.”
As if startled, the boy opened his eyes wide and struggled with the nugget, anxious to get it off. “Father, take this with you. If you already have this gold, it will not take you as long to collect what you need.”
“Gwai jai,” said Chen Kai, and he calmed the boy’s hands with his own. “I will find so much that such a little bit would not delay me.”
“You will sit with me?”
“Until you are asleep. As I promised.” Chen Kai stroked his son’s head.
“Then you will see me in your dreams.”
Chen Pie Sou tried to keep his eyelids from falling shut. They became heavy, and the kang was especially warm that night. When he woke into the cold, bright morning, his breath was like the clouds of a speeding train, wispy white—vanishing. His mother was making the breakfast porridge, her face tear-stained. His father was gone.
The boy yelled, “Ma! It’s my fault!”
She jumped. “What is it?”
“I’m sorry,” sobbed Chen Pie Sou. “I meant to stay awake. If I had, ba would still be here.”
1966, Cholon, Vietnam
It was a new morning towards the end of the dry season, early enough that the fleeting shade still graced the third-floor balcony of the Percival Chen English Academy. Chen Pie Sou, who was known to most as Headmaster Percival Chen, and his son, Dai Jai, sat at the small wicker breakfast table, looking out at La Place de la Libération.
The market girls’ bright silk ao dais glistened. First light had begun to sweep across their bundles of cut vegetables for sale, the noodle sellers’ carts, the flame trees that shaded the sidewalks, and the flower sellers’ arrangements of blooms. Percival had just told Dai Jai that he wished to discuss a concerning matter, and now, as the morning drew itself out a little further, was allowing his son some time to anticipate what this might be.
Looking at his son was like examining himself at that age. At sixteen, Dai Jai had a man’s height, and, Percival assumed, certain desires. A boy’s impatience for their satisfaction was to be expected. Like Percival, Dai Jai had probing eyes, and full lips. Percival often thought it might be his lips which gave him such strong appetites, and wondered if it was the same for his son. Between Dai Jai’s eyebrows, and traced from his nose around the corners of his mouth, the beginnings of creases sometimes appeared. These so faint that no one but his father might notice, or recognize as the earliest outline of what would one day become a useful mask. Controlled, these lines would be a mask to show other men, hinting at insight regarding a delicate situation, implying an unspoken decision, or signifying nothing except to leave them guessing. Such creases were long since worn into the fabric of Percival’s face, but on Dai Jai they could still vanish—to show the smooth skin of a boy’s surprise. Now, they were slightly inflected, revealed Dai Jai’s worry over what his father might want to discuss, and concealed nothing from Percival. That was as it should be. Already, Percival regretted that he needed to reprimand his son, but in such a situation, it was the duty of a good father.

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The Headmaster's Wager 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
KenCady More than 1 year ago
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!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
readsalways More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous 17 days ago
The best book of the year! Informative, articulate, and spell binding -- i wanted to finish in one read.
Anonymous 3 months ago
Books like this are why i love b&n's bargain section. I might never have discovered one of the most stunning pieces of writing i've read this year. The author is a past-master at evoking the sights, smells, tastes and tensions of the setting and the era. He has created memorable, complex characters and relationships.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!