Unabridged Chick: The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam

Audra, Unabridged Chick
October 10, 2012

Title: The Headmaster’s Wager
Author: Vincent Lam

Genre: Fiction (Vietnam / 1960s / Chinese Ex-Pat / Vietnam War / Cross-Cultural Relationship / Father-Son Relationships / Schoolteacher / Addiction / War)
Publisher/Publication Date: Hogarth (8/14/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked a good deal.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: In 1960s Vietnam, a Chinese schoolmaster gambles his wealth in hopes of keeping, and eventually saving, his loved ones.

Do I like the cover?: Nope. So ugly. So '60s? Perhaps that was intentional.

I'm reminded of...: Camilla Gibb

First line: On a winter night shortly after the New Year festivities, Chen Kai sat on the edge of the family kang, the brick bed.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, especially if you like complicated family fiction, war narratives, and a unique look at Southeast Asia.

Why did I get this book?: When I saw it was a Hogarth offering, I couldn't say no.

Review: After Anouk Markovits' I Am Forbidden blew my mind, I was pretty curious to see what Hogarth's other offerings would be like, and if they continue putting out books as good as this and I Am Forbidden, then I will be a very happy, happy readergirl.

Forgive me in advance for my clumsy attempt to summarize this novel; it is more rich than what I can articulate. Set in 1960s Vietnam, the story follows Percival Chen, a Chinese headmaster living in Cholon with his son. As the country shifts from being a French colony, as the conflict with China grows, as the American presence (and impact) in Vietnam increases, Chen's English-language school gains and loses privilege in the shifting political landscape.

When Chen's son makes an stupid, patriotic gesture that has violent ramifications, Chen is forced to confront the changes around him and the loss of power the Chinese community once had. Chen's vices -- women and gambling -- become his escape and his punishment, and he constantly re-evaluates just what he'll wager to save what -- and who -- he loves.

Lam's writing is lovely, descriptive but not weighty. I'm wholly unfamiliar with the Chinese community in Vietnam but I was able to understand Chen's life, his values, his passions, his foibles, as well as the shifting politics of the place, and in Chen, I found a very flawed, very sad, very fascinating character. (Although I'll be honest: I really want a novel about his ex-wife Cecilia! She's a flinty one.)

Even at 400+ pages, this novel read quickly. Lam balances sex, violence, war, and inner turmoil wonderfully; his cast is complicated and interesting. Those who might not consider themselves interested in the Vietnam War will find this a fascinating read for the unusual angle, the focus on family, race, identity, and community. As with Nayana Currimbhoy's Miss Timmins' School for Girls, I loved seeing the 1960s and 1970s in non-Western way.

© Unabridged Chick 2012