Perhaps books like this should come with a warning–“Dinner may be late and laundry will remain dirty.” Once I started The Headmaster’s Wager, I was reluctant to stop for minor interruptions like answering the telephone or eating dinner. It plunged me into an unknown world. I cared deeply about the characters. To add to the impressive credentials, although the author has written other books, this is his first novel.
Books about Vietnam abound–both fiction and non. But The Headmaster’s Wager finds a new view, that of the expatriate Chinese community in Vietnam. In this revealing and fast-paced book, a Chinese man, Chen Pie Sou, flees the tyranny of Japanese in China to eventually deal with the tyranny of the Viet Cong rule in Cholon, Vietnam, the Chinatown of Saigon.
Like Yun Ling, in The Garden of Evening Mists (see the review here), the main character in The Headmaster’s Wager, has a dim view of the Japanese. But horrific actions are not limited to one nationality, and his eyes are opened to the darker nature of man. Chen Pie Sou, also known by the English name of Percival, fled to Vietnam to find his father. Vincent Lam‘s engrossing story shows Percival’s beliefs unraveling. Although during the course of the story he loses most of the things he once believed were essential, he fights to survive and protect those he loves.
When he arrived in Cholon, Percival established an English school in the building that once housed his father’s rice warehouse. Life seems good in this Chinese enclave as he becomes prosperous, seeks out female companionship bought by the night, gambles at Mah Jong and donates lavishly to a Buddhist temple to honor his ancestors. Although the headmaster married a Chinese woman, the feisty and independent Cecilia, she divorced him and he declares her “not Chinese inside.” This is important because overarching his beliefs that anything can be bought, his belief in luck, his devotion to ancestor worship, he stubbornly clings to a belief in Chinese superiority. Bad things happen to other people, but as a Chinese, he has luck, his ancestors and his ability to buy his way out of problems.
When they divorced, Cecilia let him raise their son, Dai Jai, and he works to inculcate his son with his values, particularly the necessity to marry a Chinese woman. This rebounds in a heart-breaking way.
The rise of the Viet Cong interrupts the smug safety of the small world created by the minority Chinese community. Foreigners are the first to be killed or imprisoned. Percival, who sees everything as a business opportunity, buys officials to keep him and his son safe. He relies heavily on a shady friend, Mak, who always seems to know the right people to present with a “red envelope”/bribe.
This very brief plot summary does not do justice to the complex fascination of The Headmaster’s Wager. Besides graphic depictions of brutality and equally graphic lyrical love scenes, the novel moves through a unique life with suspenseful (and never predictable) actions and outcomes.
If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam and want to know some of the background of what made the country you see today, The Headmaster’s Wager belongs in your travel library. Even if you don’t care to visit Vietnam but just like a rousing good read–I can recommend Vincent Lam’s book to you. But if you ARE booking travel to Vietnam, here is a source of suggestions. Another Vietnam war story–this one about visiting John McCain’s prison in Hanoi, from Around the World “L”. That site has loads of other suggestions for today’s visitors to Vietnam, so take a look.
Disclaimers: The publisher sent me this book for review. That fact does not influence my opinion. The two bottom photos are used with a Creative Commons license and come from Flickr. The top photo is from Vincent Lam’s website. You can click on any of the photos to learn more. Links to Amazon are affiliate links and although it costs you no more to shop through those links, you are benefiting A Traveler’s Library. Why not do all your Amazon shopping that way? Thanks!