The Headmaster's Wager

Piali Roy, Quill and Quire
April 20, 2012

V incent Lam made a literary splash when his first work of fiction, the story collection Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, won the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Following his short biography of Tommy Douglas, Lam turns to his family's history as part of the expatriate Chinese community in Vietnam as subject matter for his debut novel.

Epic in scope but drawn in miniature, the novel centres on the life of Percival Chen, the titular headmaster whose father, like others before him, left China in search of the so-called Gold Mountain – in this case, a small town just outside Saigon. Born into poverty in Guangdong province, Chen Pie Sou relocates to Hong Kong, where he takes on the Western name Percival. Following the brutal Japanese occupation, Chen and his new wife flee the city for Vietnam.

Once there, Chen becomes headmaster of the Percival Chen English Academy, and attempts to negotiate a path through the tumultuous history of mid-20th-century Vietnam. Despite his best attempts to achieve some measure of stability, his idea of family keeps fracturing, and his belief in his Chinese superiority results in unexpected repercussions for his son, who is saved from a youthful political indiscretion only to be sent away to China on the eve of the Cultural Revolution.

Chen finds relief in his lover, Jacqueline, a métisse he wins at a game of mah-jong, and his loyal friend Mak, whose secret and not-so-secret deal-making with the Americans offers Chen the hope of reuniting with his son.

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.

© Quill and Quire 2012