The Headmaster's Wager

The Headmaster's Wager

Book - 2012
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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.
Publisher: Toronto : Doubleday Canada, c2012.
ISBN: 9780385661454
Branch Call Number: LAM
Characteristics: 393 p. ; 25 cm.


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Vincent Lam’s latest book is a great read. Set in Saigon during the lead-up to the Vietnam War, it’s not an easy book – some of the details of the torture and atrocities during this time are quite harrowing, as are the main character’s memories of events that happened during the years of Japanese occupation in World War 2. The book’s protagonist, Percival Chen, is headmaster of a respected English school in Saigon. He enjoys the city’s pleasures, gambling and visiting the local brothels. Despite his flaws, he’s a compelling character, and caring about what happens to Percival makes the reader keep reading, despite the difficulty of some of the events in the book. I found the description of the details of the politics and culture of the time fascinating, and it helps me to understand better those who lived through these and similar events. While a work of fiction, it was inspired by the experience of Vincent Lam’s own family, who were members of the Chinese community in Vietnam; the character of Percival is based partly on Lam’s grandfather. For those that love political thrillers, and learning of the history and culture of other lands, I can highly recommend this book. (submitted by DK)

Jan 30, 2017

On the one hand, it was interesting to learn about a place and time unfamiliar to me, yet I found the main character so distasteful I came close to bailing halfway. How do we judge the survivors of a world filled with political peril? It takes a knack for manipulation to emerge alive.

Jul 07, 2015

I really liked this novel. It gave me a different perspective on the Vietnam war but most of all I enjoyed the characters and the twisting plot. I like stories about flawed people who make flawed choices. They are very human and the results are often sad or bittersweet. I found the cultural aspects very interesting as well.

Jan 05, 2015

My daughter told me to read this, so of course I waited a year or so before I did. At first I was very impatient with the story as Percival Chen just would not be a good guy. He is Chinese and runs an academy in Saigon in the 1970's teaching English to anyone who needs it and can pay. His heart is Chinese and he has never thought of himself as Vietnamese in all the years he has lived in Vietnam. He is a gambler, a womanizer, a briber, a liar, an opportunist, and an all-round look-out-for-number-one kind of guy. His wagers are many but his wager for his son whom he loves unconditionally is daring and much bigger than he ever realizes. I was drawn in as I continued reading, and all through to the end kept saying "don't do that, what are you thinking, open your eyes, see what is happening" as Chen bumbled on using his old remedies while the times changed all around him. A very good read.

Jenny_Fry Oct 16, 2014

Very good book, rich details, lots of tension re: what will happen to the characters....the reader knows that the Vietnam war is coming to Saigon but the characters are clueless. Quite violent at times, very much worth reading.

Mar 19, 2014

The main character, although he defends and is true to his family, is difficult to care about given his opportunism, total lack of awareness of the political situation where he lives and chauvinism about his race. The book really highlights the racism of the Chinese and everyone else. The book is a little long and self-indulgent but nevertheless, very readable.

beebee40 Jan 27, 2014

a mix of history, family roots and dreams, politics and mixed cultures. Interesting and a valiant effort by the author; but the prose is flabby, somewhat repetitive. The novel attempts too much and I believe falls short of its potential

Dec 30, 2013

Excellent book. Took me back to memories of Viet Nam both in terms of my travel experience and the history of the 1960' and 70's.

Nov 12, 2013

A riveting story about a high-stakes game where life is the ultimate bet. What it means to respect, have friendships, love, cherish a family... all these are tested to the limit in times of war. The Vietnam setting of the 60s and 70s makes a fascinating stage on which to play the drama. It is a time I know about but never really understood. Lam has created an intense story, certainly worth reading and making us better people for having read it.

Oct 17, 2013

The saga of Percival Chan, a Chinese who makes his home in Vietnam, is gripping and spellbinding. Percival is the headmaster of an English Language Academy in Saigon and through the book we follow his fortunes and misfortunes which run parallel to the Vietnam war. The sixties are a tumultuous time in Vietnam but Percival keeps convincing himself that the Chinese are there only for the money. Lam succeeds in making us love his characters and we root for them all the way.

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