Book Review: The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam

Dawn, DSA Fire
November 07, 2012

4 out of 5 Stars

Better late than never I suppose.This one’s been hanging around in the “to be reviewed pile” for a fairly embarrassingly long time, and I’m not entirely sure why.

 But once I did pick it up, I didn’t want to put it down. Lam is a master craftsman working at his height, and one can only hope he can top himself.The story is one of hope turned to tragedy as we follow the life of a Chinese National- the titular Headmaster, known in Saigon by his english name, Percival Chen. We watch, riveted, as he struggles to succeed in the dangerous waters of Southeast Asia during what is possibly its greatest period of upheaval, in a region known for fast changes, bloody politics and out-of-control grift. We watch, wincing as we see him, making choice after choice that send him racing unerringly for the deadly cliff that history has laid in his path.

Lam has you so invested in his hapless hero you want to shout at him “No, stop, DON’T DO IT” as he paves his path to hell, but carefully keeps you from becoming irritated… Chen’s choices always seem to be the best idea at the time, and are only later revealed as disastrous through the lens of history.

The themes are emblematic of the Vietnamese Conflict (which is usually how I see it titled these days) as seen through western eyes, the best of intentions gone so horribly wrong that even ending it is a losing proposition. The winning hand, bested by the royal flush that comes out of nowhere, the poison in the pie. And while Chen is Chinese, he represents something other than that geopolitical entitiy. Chen is just trying to survive and come out on top of the deck, something no foreign power has ever really managed in that region, invariably ending in tragedy when the next player draws an Ace.

Overall I strongly recommend this work to anyone with an interest in history in general or in Asia specifically.

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