The Headmaster's Wager

The Headmaster's Wager

Hardcover | April 24, 2012

byVincent Lam

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From Giller Prize winner, internationally acclaimed, and bestselling author Vincent Lam comes a superbly crafted, highly suspenseful, and deeply affecting novel set against the turmoil of the Vietnam War.
 
Percival Chen is the headmaster of the most respected English school in Saigon. He is also a bon vivant, a compulsive gambler and an incorrigible womanizer. He is well accustomed to bribing a forever-changing list of government officials in order to maintain the elite status of the Chen Academy. He is fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage, and quick to spot the business opportunities rife in a divided country. He devotedly ignores all news of the fighting that swirls around him, choosing instead to read the faces of his opponents at high-stakes mahjong tables. 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, and Laing Jai, a son born to them on the eve of the Tet offensive. Percival's new-found happiness is precarious, and as the complexities of war encroach further and further into his world, he must confront the tragedy of all he has refused to see.
 
Blessed with intriguingly flawed characters moving through a richly drawn historical and physical landscape, The Headmaster's Wager is a riveting story of love, betrayal and sacrifice.

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The Headmaster's Wager

Hardcover | April 24, 2012
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From the Publisher

From Giller Prize winner, internationally acclaimed, and bestselling author Vincent Lam comes a superbly crafted, highly suspenseful, and deeply affecting novel set against the turmoil of the Vietnam War. Percival Chen is the headmaster of the most respected English school in Saigon. He is also a bon vivant, a compulsive gambler and an...

DR. VINCENT LAM is from the expatriate Chinese community of Vietnam, and was born in Canada. Dr. Lam did his medical training and is an emergency physician in Toronto. He is a Lecturer with the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto. He has also worked in international air evacuation and expedition med...

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Format:HardcoverDimensions:400 pages, 9.53 × 6.59 × 1.35 inPublished:April 24, 2012Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385661452

ISBN - 13:9780385661454

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Reviews

Rated 4 out of 5 by from A glimpse into Life In Vietnam Enjoyable story of a lifestyle uncommon to westerners. Great pace of storyline and mystery.
Date published: 2014-10-10
Rated 3 out of 5 by from good, but also disappointing Vincent Lam's descriptions of wartime Vietnam were vivid and relentless, making this a great read for anyone who adores being steeped in historical and cultural richness. If, however, you rely heavily on an interesting plot to keep you reading, I wouldn't recommend this book. Despite being set in a beautifully chaotic time and place, for me the plot was boring and repetitive. It was only in the last few chapters that I found myself drawn to keep reading. The ending I have to admit was masterfully crafted, but I wish I had felt that same excitement from the beginning of what had been for me a long anticipated read.
Date published: 2014-07-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Did not want to put it down. The characters were well developed and I found myself vested in what was happening with them. Hoping for the best, while fearing the worst as the plot twisted with the situation that was engulfing Vietnam. I felt as though I was given an insider's view of the events that ruled that time in our world. This is a book that I would love to read again, to enjoy it from a different perspective.
Date published: 2014-04-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The headmasters wager A really excellent book. I highly recommend
Date published: 2014-02-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Headmaster's Wager Fantastic! I loved the history lesson, and found the protagonist to be a fascinating tragic hero. Great story, and we'll constructed.
Date published: 2014-01-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Headmasters wager Compelling read, I loved it
Date published: 2013-12-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Headmaster's Wager Such colourful characters...loved this book from beginning to end.
Date published: 2013-09-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great story Mr. Lam’s first novel is a fiction inspired by his own family history. At the heart is the story of Chen Pie Sou, also known as Percival, the headmaster of the prestigious Percival Chen English Academy in Cholon, a small city near Saigon. This character is loosely based on Mr. Lam’s grandfather It begins in Shantou China in 1930 but the story does not linger there and soon we are transported to Vietnam in 1966. Like many others before him Chen left China in search of the so-called Gold Mountain and following the brutal Japanese occupation ended up with his new wife in Vietnam. Once there he attempted to achieve stability but his beliefs in his Chinese superiority resulted in repercussions for his son,Dai Jai, being accused of political indiscretions and sent to China on the eve of the Culture Revolution only to return by way of the North Vietnam some years later….Meanwhile Chen finds relief in his lover, a métisse he won at a game of mah-jong and makes secrets dealing with his loyal friend Mak…. This is a fast-paced portrait, a genuine page-turner full of melodrama, intrigue and surprises. It is told chronologically in the third person from the protagonist perspective. Chen is not really a likable character, he is an apolitical businessman only concerned in turning a profit and maintaining his cultural purity but this is what makes him very interesting and wonderfully human. With the War as backdrop, its secret police and theatrical politic “The Headmaster’s Wager” can only be rich in historical details although the author may have taken some liberties with his story. Nicely written this novel is a delight to read.
Date published: 2013-08-31
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I Wager You'll Enjoy The Headmaster's Wager Really, the only thing I have to say about this book was that it was a lovely, well written literary novel with intriguing characters and a fascinating look at some of Vietnam's more recent history.The following recommendations are for those of you who enjoy excellent literary novels with a dash of historical elements, but not an overdose.
Date published: 2013-06-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Reflections from this the landing point. What a magnificent novel. I taught some of the first wave of refugees from Viet NAm in the late 70's. Their faces and their stories came back to me as I read. I felt totally incapable of helping these students except through simple basic kindnesses.
Date published: 2013-05-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best bet Truly excellent. A wonderful insight into Indochina as it then was. Book of the year?
Date published: 2013-04-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Awesome! This book was gripping from start to finish. Everything intertwined perfectly. I was hoping there would have been more of an ending though, but otherwise one of the best books I have read this year!
Date published: 2013-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Awesome! This book was gripping from start to finish. Everything intertwined perfectly. I was hoping there would have been more of an ending though, but otherwise one of the best books I have read this year!
Date published: 2013-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A great page turner The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam is a great page turner. The story of Percival Chen, an expatriate Chinese, the headmaster of the best English academy in Viet Name, is fascinating. The protagonist is well developed with many characteristics, a dutiful son and loving father, an educator who believes in fate and worships ancestral spirits, and a lucky gambler. The plot intrigues the reader. Percival’s life is full of dramatic moments: a student in Hong Kong flees the Sino-Japanese war to Vietnam with his newlywed wife; an expat wants to return to China, but never gets a chance; a risk taker saves his son arrested by the “quite” police; as a target of the Viet Cong, the headmaster narrowly escapes from being murdered because of the birth of his son/grandson; he loves Jacqueline, a métisse, but can’t marry her; he eagerly has his teenaged son smuggler into China at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution to avoid him from being enlisted in the Southern Vietnamese army, but wants him to return home badly. His loyal friend has to torture him in order to help him. A lot of suspense and surprises are built in the storyline and makes the reader want to know: Does his son return from China? Can Jacqueline and her son flee the Viet Gong’s takeover? Percival’s refusal of learning the Vietnamese language and teaching the language in his school after living in Vietnam for a long time rings true sadly. The novel covers the Vietnam War era, but from an inside angle. Percival’s life is damaged by the Viet Cong and has to find a way out of there. The open ending does not only gives the reader room to imagine, but also hints for another interesting novel.:-) I’m looking forward to it.
Date published: 2013-01-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Stunning An epic story of a Chinese man, the headmaster of an English school in Vietnam during the Vietnam war. A fascinating and horrifying snapshot of the life of a civilian in those years of war and turmoil, a man who is himself an immigrant in a country occupied by Americans. A complex love story, a heart-rending family saga ... all told in spare, perfect prose. Compelling: I lost sleep reading this novel. Highly, highly, highly recommended.
Date published: 2012-07-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Worth the wait Vincent won the Giller prize over 5 years ago, and this accomplished novel shows he has been busy. Rich in atmosphere and character plus you learn about a country that is fascinating . Definitely worth the wait.
Date published: 2012-06-12
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Disappointing! Story Description: Doubleday Canada | April 24, 2012 | Hardcover|ISBN 978-0-385-66145-4 Percival Chen is the Headmaster of the most respected English school in Saigon. He is also a bon vivant, a compulsive gambler, and an incorrigible womanizer. He is well accustomed to bribing a forever-changing list of government officials in order to maintain the elite status of the Percival Chen English Academy. Fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage, he is quick to spot the business opportunities rife in a divided country. He devotedly ignores all news of the fighting that swirls around him choosing instead to read the faces of his opponents at high-stakes mah-jong tables. But when his son, Dai Jai, get into trouble with the Vietnamese authorities, Percival must face 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, and Laing Jai, a son born to them on the verge of the Tet Offensive. Percival’s newfound happiness is precarious, and as the complexities of war encroach further and further into this world he must confront the tragedy of all he has refused to see. Blessed with intriguingly flawed characters moving through a richly drawn historical and physical landscape, The Headmaster’s Wager is a riveting story of love, betrayal, and sacrifice. My Review: Vincent Lam’s novel The Headmaster’s Wager seemed to be a bit slow and I had a hard time keeping my mind from wondering off and thinking of other things, then would have to come back and re-read the paragraph. However, the story did seem to pick-up somewhat after he meets Jacqueline and has a son with her and a surprise I never expected. All in all, I could easily have given this book a pass.
Date published: 2012-06-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Already the best book of 2012 Vincent Lam's novel, The Headmaster's Wager, is like a painting. The beginning starts off, not exactly slowly, but as a base coat, layering the story with details that will become more important as the narrative builds, until the end result is a piece of art that is complex and compelling, a masterpiece in every sense. The novel follows the life of Percival Chen, Chinese headmaster of an English school in South Vietnam in the years before and after the Vietnam war. All around him is turmoil, conflicting forces of colonization, Communism, nationalism, invasion and resistance. Every move he makes is carefully watched by all around him, yet he convinces himself he can remain untouched by all of it by remaining apolitical, focused solely on business and on family, and sometimes by being wilfully ignorant. It is a wager he makes on a daily basis, that greasing all the right palms with lucky red envelopes of bribe money will save him and his family from the perils of being a foreigner in a rapidly changing Vietnam. He is a man who is not afraid of a wager, routinely gambling away his fortune at high stakes mah-jong tables. But when his son's antics attract the attention of the so-called "quiet police" Headmaster Chen finds himself caught in a series of circumstances that will lead him to a high stakes gamble that will alter the course of his life. This novel is genius. If you told me that it was the tenth novel of a highly respected, award winning novelist I would believe it. It reminds me of the work of Amy Tan, not just because it is written by a North American writer about Chinese history, but because the level of craftsmanship and storytelling is so high. And this guy is a doctor. A real, medical doctor. He's already very good at something amazing. He can write too? It's not like finding out that some mediocre actor also has a mediocre rock band. It's like finding out that Geena Davis is a member of Mensa and almost made the U.S. Olympic team for archery. What the what--?!? When I read Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures I was impressed (blown away actually) by Vincent Lam's skill as a fiction writer, but I figured since it was a collection of stories about being a medical student and a doctor in Canada, maybe it wasn't so much of a stretch. The Headmaster's Wager, on the other hand, is in a whole different league. It's absolute genius. Oh, and his other credits include writing something called The Flu Pandemic and You, for which he won an award from the American Medical Writers Association, and a biography of Canadian hero Tommy Douglas. At this rate, I'm almost afraid Vincent Lam won't have another novel, since maybe he feels he's mastered that now and will be moving on to, say, children's books or cookbooks (both of which I would buy, by the way). One thing is for certain. If you ever meet Vincent Lam, you should probably ask him to build you some furniture or teach you sign language or something. Even if he's never done it before, odds are he's a genius at that too. For more reviews, please visit my blog, CozyLittleBookJournal. Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from the publisher from NetGalley. I was not obliged to write a favourable review, or even any review at all. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.
Date published: 2012-05-30

Extra Content

Read from the Book

1930, Shantou, ChinaOn 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, VietnamIt 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.

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com - Best 100 Books of 2012Amazon.ca - Best 100 Books of 2012Shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize“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.” —Quill & Quire “I love this book's vivid realization and its deft weave of conspiracies. I especially admire Lam's ability to transport a reader. . . . A colourful, suspenseful depiction of Chinese living in Vietnam during the war.”—The Globe and Mail “Lam writes tellingly about intrigue, political collusion and the clash of cultures.” —Kirkus Reviews “With the deft use of dreams and flashbacks, Lam fills in the family back-story without losing the forward momen­tum of the gripping political tale that echoes the intrigues of Dr. Zhivago and Graham Greene. Arresting poetic images of pleasure and pain, of sex and death, are stitched together with surgical precision . . . An alchemist who has turned rough familial coal into literary gold (and with any luck, cinematic gold), Lam has forged a testament to the immut­able power of the filial bond, mapping the con­scious and unconscious transmission of gifts and curses of a single family, and therefore all families.” —Literary Review of Canada “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.” —Publisher’s Weekly"The Headmaster's Wager does what only the very best literature can do: it provides characters you care about deeply (even as they break your heart) and has plot twists you don't see coming but then couldn't imagine any other way. Vincent Lam has written a mature and rewarding novel of the highest quality, and Percival Chen will remain with you long after the final page. This is an exceptional book."—Andrew Davidson, author of The Gargoyle“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