The Headmaster’s Wager – Book Review
The Headmaster’s Wager, an epic set in Vietnam
Brigitte Mah, Whistler Writers Festival
August 28, 2014
What is the price to be paid for family pride and cultural heritage? What lengths will one go to, to protect all that he holds dear? Vincent Lam’s debut novel, The Headmaster’s Wager, tells the poignant tale of Chinese national Chen Pie Sou, the headmaster of a renowned English academy in 1960s Saigon, whose fierce pride in his Chinese heritage blindly leads him on a series of regrettable actions.
The novel begins in 1930 China just after New Year’s; on the eve that Chen Pie Sou’s father is to leave for the fabled Gold Mountain in Vietnam. To soothe the young, anxious Chen Pie Sou, Chen Kai gives him the family charm — a lump of gold on a string necklace — and calls him gwai jai, well-behaved boy.
The story then jumps to 1966 Vietnam, where Chen Pie Sou, now known as Percival Chen, runs the Percival Chen English Academy, and is haunted by the actions and words of his father. In fact, the academy is his father’s home — one that Percival discovered after waiting for years for his father’s return and then journeying to Vietnam, only to find him addicted to heroin and wed to a Vietnamese woman. Percival breaks Chen Kai’s addiction, but loses his father again when he disappears in the middle of the night, never to be heard of again. Coupled with the heartless rejection and bitter divorce of his arranged-marriage wife, Percival becomes unable to be fulfilled and seeks solace in gambling and the women of Mrs. Ling.
Percival’s life would almost be empty — except for his son. Percival’s treatment of his son Dai Jai, who, on the cusp of adulthood, has secretly fallen for a Vietnamese girl, is steeped in classic Asian parenting. His words come out stronger and harsher than intended, but he never wavers in his goal to protect Dai Jai and keep him as Chinese as possible.
This is only amplified when Percival learns of Dai Jai’s relationship with a Vietnamese student. Percival’s admonishing words “An Annamese woman will offer you her sweetness, and then turn to sell it to someone else” resonate throughout the book as Percival’s conversation with Dai Jai about his Vietnamese girlfriend serves as the catalyst for the ensuing events of the novel.
Even if one didn’t care about the historical events surrounding Saigon from the ’60s to the ’70s, it is impossible not to be captivated by Percival’s flawed character and the self-destructive decisions he constantly makes — all in an effort to chase the ghost of his father and right the wrong he created so many years ago. He wants to protect his son and himself from the path of Chen Kai — but finds the three of them more connected than ever. And then there is that brilliant moment when all the storylines crash together in a scene that you would have seen coming — if you weren’t caught up in each of them.
Vincent Lam tells a tale of another time but its roots are centered in his life today. This story was inspired by his family, after all, and his story is more than a story. It is a truthful look at a family’s decisions and the long-lasting effects a person’s actions can have. And although Percival unquestionably makes rash and almost frustrating choices about his relationships, including Dai Jai, his efforts can’t be harshly judged.
After all, so many of us live in the shadow of our family’s actions. Who can blame a person for trying to break the pattern?
© 2014 Whistler Writers Festival