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Monday, September 17, 2012

The Headmaster's Wager


Almost exactly five years ago, I was introduced to Victor Lam’s writing through his short story collection, Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures.  That twelve-story collection, featuring four Canadian medical students in various combinations, reads very much like a novel in itself.  Now, however, Lam has written a very different book, The Headmaster’s Wager, a remarkable family saga that officially marks his transition from short story writer to novelist.  (Vincent Lam is also an emergency room doctor and a University of Toronto lecturer.)

In the novel, Lam uses his own family history as inspiration to explore the experiences of Vietnam’s Chinese expatriate community over the course of recent Vietnamese history.  The reader will, through the eyes of Headmaster Percival Chen, live through the 1940 Japanese invasion of Vietnam, the French colonial period, and the long war against the United States that would split the country in two.  Percival will also know firsthand the Japanese occupation of China, his home country, and will feel the pain of responsibility for what his only son endures there during Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

Percival Chen is owner and headmaster of the Percival Chen English Academy housed in his former family home in Cholon, a largely Chinese-populated section of Saigon.  Percival, now divorced, lives above the school with his only son where a staff of servants attends to their daily needs.  Percival’s father earned the family fortune in the lucrative rice trade, but due to the vagaries of war (and the suggestion of a close friend), Percival now dedicates himself to qualifying students for translation jobs with the American government and military.  His is the most respected English-language school in the country, and it easily supports the headmaster’s reckless lifestyle.

Dr. Vincent Lam
Percival Chen is a gambling man.  Little bets, big bets, bets that might cost him his business or his life; it is all the same to him.  A man of large appetites, he is well known at the city’s high-stakes mahjong tables and to the high-end prostitutes introduced by Mrs. Ling.  Despite his recklessness, the school thrives, but Percival would never admit even to himself that his success is largely due to the connections of a teacher who is also his best friend, Mr. Mak.  Mr. Mak is an organizer, a Vietnamese with the business contacts, government contacts, and contacts within the structure of the Vietnamese secret police to ensure the success of the Percival Chen English Academy.  And he uses those contacts to make good things happen.

Finally, hardly realizing it, Percival makes the biggest wager of his life.  Win or lose, his family’s survival now depends on one final spin of the wheel by the headmaster.

The Headmaster’s Wager is a memorable debut novel, a piece of historical fiction within which the reader will become completely immersed.  Like Percival Chen, pity him, or despise him, this story of the love between a father and his son will not soon be forgotten. 

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)
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