The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam

Jan Stuart, The New York Times
September 7, 2012

Wike so many fictional academicians, Percival Chen, the titular headmaster at the center of Lam’s sumptuously plotted first novel, is a crummy role model. The founder of the most prestigious English language school in 1966 Saigon, Chen readily confesses that he’s in it for the money and shows little discretion in lavishing his profits on gambling and sex. Ripe for an awakening, he gets one far ruder than he deserves when his Chinese patriot sentiments are parroted by his 16-year-old son in front of his classmates, unaware that Vietnamese nationalism is shifting into high gear.

The boy is promptly spirited away by the police, propelling Chen into heroic-parent mode - and into the thick of a city suffering a violent identity change. And that’s just the beginning. As the novel progresses, Lam goes for the jugular, combining an operatic love story involving a French-Vietnamese prostitute with wince-inducing evocations of Vietnam’s occupation by the Japanese and the later horrors of the Vietcong’s persecution of the city of Hue. Lam’s narrative is businesslike yet nimble, albeit crowded with a few too many shrewish women. 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.

© The New York Times 2013