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The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam

The Headmaster's Wager (edition 2012)

by Vincent Lam

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2412247,848 (4.03)53
Title:The Headmaster's Wager
Authors:Vincent Lam
Info:Hogarth (2012), Hardcover, 432 pages
Collections:Read, Your library, ARC

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The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam



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In this magnificently ambition tale a politically naïve Percival Chen, the headmaster of a successful English academy in 1960s Saigon believes in the superiority of his Chinese heritage and the value bribes are the keys to his success. After all this has worked with past conquerors, the Japanese, the French and the Americans–no matter how temporary their stay but being oblivious to the newest player for control will challenge Percival beyond his nightmares.

I was captivated by this book from the beginning and held spellbound to the last paragraph by the Lam’s storytelling ability to intertwine the history/connection of Vietnam, China, Hong Kong and the foreigners. This was an audio book for me and the narrator effectively conveyed the tension, arrogance, love, and betrayals.

I believe part of the appeal of this book for me can also be contributed to my recent trip to China and Hong Kong and reading the wonderful book, “Ghost Month” by Ed Lin helping me to appreciate the complexly layered history of this region.

Lam has crafted a gripping masterpiece that captures a street-level view of the complexity of a world where one misstep can lead to an unraveling of all that you hold dear. I recommend this book to readers of historical fiction. ( )
  bookmuse56 | Oct 16, 2014 |
Set during Vietnam War, which is interesting. Main character, Percival Chen is Chinese who follows his father to Saigon/ Cholon. Both come to Vietnam as to the Golden Mountain, Percival's goal to make money but not integrate into Vietnamese society or politics. Noted as a flawed character loosely based on the author's grandfather, he remained for me largely unsympathetic as he tries so hard to remain focused solely on his own immediate family & concerns & not the war or the Vietnamese themselves, toward whom he feels superior. My main quibble with the novel, however, is not so much that but more that the author goes over the top in his laying on of one horrific or tragic event after another. All that happens surely happened in Vietnam/ Saigon during the war & China during the Cultural Revolution (going on at same time in China) but in terms of the novel, it creates unnecessary & depleting melodrama when concentrated within one small family circle. ( )
  Paulagraph | May 25, 2014 |
I enjoyed this book very much. The story moves along well and gave me a sense of what was is like from the perspectives of different segments of the population. There are many layers of history and culture here, showing what it can take to survive in a war zone. It gave me a context for the arrival of the "boat people" in Canada; an understaning of the "wagers" they had to make over and over again to secure the safety of themselves and their families.

Vincent Lam writes well, and displays a deep understanding of human nature. Percival Chen was greedy, arrogant, but also fiercel loyal to his children. I developed sympathy for this character through his back story, and seeing the impact the father's actions had on him. ( )
  LynnB | Dec 3, 2013 |
I loved Vincent Lam's first book of non-fiction (Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures), but his first work of fiction was very painful and difficult to read. Percival Chan at no point won my sympathy--a very unlikable man who treats the people in his life poorly, even during good times. As a Chinese living in Vietnam, he exhibits characteristics of an immigrant that didn't endear him to me--he's dismissive of the local culture, doesn't bother to learn the language, learn the history, or pay attention to politics. He's pretty much there to make money.
Women characters are not well-drawn.The scenes of torture were horrific and a reminder I didn't want of just how terrible people can be to each other.

But the action does move along and portrays what war is like from the perspective of segments of the civilian population, as well as what it can take to survive in uncertain and politically shifting times. I remember when refugees, especially the boat people, were arriving in Canada--this book provides insight into that period of history and helps to explain why people were so desperate to leave. ( )
  bookmess | Oct 8, 2013 |
Percival Chan sets up an English language school in Saigon during the Vietnam war. His assistant turns out to be a Viet Cong operative who sets up graduates of the school as spies for the Americans that they translate for. Percival is naive about Mak's scheme and just stays in the business to milk as much tuition from his students as he can. Some interesting plot twists involve his son's Vietnamese love interest, and his sending his son back to China during the Cultural Revolution to avoid the South Vietnamese draft. Oops! Percival somehow comes out, although not without ample pain and suffering. But he is so interested in amassing wealth that he doesn't consider the volatile political situation going on around him. ( )
  mojomomma | Sep 16, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
The Headmaster's Wager is indeed a colourful, suspenseful depiction of Chinese living in Vietnam during the war, but its patronizing approach to characters ethnically different from the headmaster gradually eroded any care I had for what happens to him.
Total Rating: 40/70 or 57%

This may seem a little harsh, but only if compared to the expectations like those in the puff pieces planted by publicists and obliging writers at the National Post and The Globe and Mail who in their preview suggested it was “nearly a masterpiece.” To the Globe’s credit, their review this weekend was much more balanced. It is a first novel, and it does have some significant strengths, maybe enough to sell the number of books the publisher expects.
In The Headmaster’s Wager, 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.
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Rocks stand stock-still, unawed by time and change. Waters lie rippling, grieved at ebb and flow -- Lady Thanh Quan
For William Lin
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On a winter night shortly after the New Year festivities, Chen Kai sat on the edge of the family kang, the brick bed.
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Book description
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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Enjoying his position as the headmaster of Saigon's best English school while indulging in a gambling and womanizing lifestyle, Percival Chen becomes aware of the local violence when his son lands in trouble with the authorities.

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