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The Headmaster's Wager Hardcover – Deckle Edge, August 14, 2012
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“[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
About the Author
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. His first book, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, was awarded the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
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Dr. Lam is a physician living in Canada. He is an ex-patriot Chinese whose family was from Vietnam. Dr. Lam says the characters in the novel are based upon the stories of family members he heard as a child. The author certainly provides a detailed and memorable picture of Saigon during the war years.
The story is told against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Percival, interested only in making money in his adopted land, is mostly oblivious to the war. The Americans are potential clients, especially Mr. Peters, who may or may not be a CIA agent. The Americans need English-speaking translators, which Percival and Mak supply from the English academy. When the Vietnamese authorities insist that Percival's school teach the Vietnamese language as well as English, Dai Jai leads a student protest that has disastrous consequences. After Dai Jai is beaten by the police and threatened with being drafted into the South Vietnamese Army, Percival pays a fortune in gold to send him "home" to China for safety. (It is to repay this debt that Percival makes his wager.) But sending Dai Jai to China is a huge mistake, as Mao's Cultural Revolution has begun and Dai Jai is one of its victims.
Vincent Lam's story unfolds slowly with numerous and unexpected twists and turns. I found myself completely engrossed in the story. Although Percival is in many ways an unsavory character, a gambler and whoremonger, with only limited insight (the reader will guess Mak's secret long before Percival will), one cannot help rooting for him. Percival is dedicated to bringing Dai Jai back "home," this time to Saigon. He faces enormous obstacles but persists. Does he succeed? Sorry, you'll have to read the book.
The story also provides an oblique but painful view of American participation in the war. At one point, Percival notes that the Americans "are not loyal to their friends, and cannot tell their friends from their enemies" (although the same is true of Percival.) The Americans betray the Vietnamese by promising aid and then welching on their promise after they depart. The Vietnamese betray one another after the Viet Cong victory. On a personal level, there are multiple betrayals among the principal characters.
This is a stunning and eye-opening tale. It will teach you much about the atmosphere of war-time Saigon and the vagaries of love, betrayal and persistence. Let's hope that it is only the first of many fine novels from Vincent Lam.
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