The Bowed Bookshelf: The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam

Trish, The Bowed Bookshelf
September 10, 2012

For readers interested in recent Chinese and Vietnamese history and culture, this novel is an intensive course. The tale begins with a young boy born to Chinese parents in Shantou, China during a period of change (the 1930s). The story takes on epic proportions when he relocates first to Hong Kong and then to Cholon (near Saigon) in Vietnam during the tumultuous period when a series of foreign powers (the Japanese, the French, the Americans) fought wars over Vietnam’s governance and managed to turn a home-grown, bottom-up revolution into a full scale civil war.

Lam succeeds in showing us Vietnam in its blisteringly hot lush beauty, its violent history, and its complicated lines of distinction between natives and non-natives and skin colors: white, brown, yellow. The time period is recent and familiar, but the angle is unique. Events in Vietnam in the 1960s and ‘70s already familiar to readers are imagined from the point of view of residents on the ground and give us an eerie dislocation. We begin to perceive the difficult sets of choices people had for living with war and occupation.

We are also treated to remarkable insights into Chinese mores and mindset when this culture can be maddeningly difficult for Westerners to grasp. The backdrop of what we call the Vietnam War makes the story cinematic, particularly one scene when the Tet offensive hits Saigon and spills into Cholon during a celebratory and drunken banquet hosted by Chen Pie Sou, the Headmaster of the title.

There was one area, however, that I thought Lam didn’t get quite right as a novelist. Lam created a complicated and flawed main character in Chen Pie Sou, which should add to the drama of the unfolding story, and does…eventually. But I had difficulty liking Chen (or any of the characters) through Part I and felt dragged into Part II only by obligation. By Part III, I started to marvel at what Lam had managed to construct, and relished the details of Vietnamese life, and Chinese habits.

Vincent Lam is a doctor as well as a novelist, and he has written a couple of nonfiction medical-related books already, one of which is an info-book for the public on a possible flu pandemic. A nonfiction book of stories, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures: Stories, won many awards and was chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover New Authors title. This is his first novel.

© The Bowed Bookshelf 2012