The Headmaster's Wager
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The Headmaster's Wager

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3.86 of 5 stars 3.86  ·  rating details  ·  2,108 ratings  ·  402 reviews
"What if your sophomore effort is a masterpiece? Lam's hugely impressive first novel . . . has all the markings. It is a project he has nurtured since his teens--the epic story of his own people, ground almost to oblivion on the bloody geopolitical fulcrum of the Vietnam War--and the result is as good a novel as anyone has ever written about those times. . . . A powerful a...more
Paperback, 400 pages
Published April 2nd 2013 by Anchor Canada (first published January 1st 2012)
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Friederike Knabe
Sometimes in his dreams Chen Pie Sou returns to his childhood in Shantou, China, and to the day of his father's first departure for the "Gold Mountain" in Indochina. His father, Chen Kai, had tied a small good luck charm around his neck: a tiny rough lump of gold, found long ago by an ancestor. It symbolizes the promise of wealth and good fortune, left without inscription because the fortunes can take different forms for each wearer. Several times over the years the father returns with more mone...more
Jeanette
This was a new perspective for me on the Vietnam War. Most of what is on offer for us here in the U.S. is told from the perspective of Americans involved in that war. THE HEADMASTER'S WAGER gives us a picture of life for the common people in and around Saigon during the war. There was a lot of money to be made as a result of the war, but the stakes were high, and certain classes of people were destined to lose regardless of who won the war. I now have a much better understanding of why some peop...more
Jill
“The world would be a faithful friend to anyone who could pay”


The Headmaster’s Wager possesses everything I look for in a book: intriguingly flawed characters, ambiguity, tightly-woven and suspenseful plot, page-turning revelations and a fresh perspective of an old plot theme – the Vietnam War.

Chen Pie Sou – renamed Percival Chen -- is the eponymous headmaster, in charge of the Percival Chen English Academy, which was formerly the rice warehouse of his father. He is a Chinese ex-patriot, a self-...more
Trish
For readers interested in recent Chinese and Vietnamese history and culture, this novel is an intensive course. The tale begins with a young boy born to Chinese parents in Shantou, China during a period of change (the 1930s). The story takes on epic proportions when he relocates first to Hong Kong and then to Cholon (near Saigon) in Vietnam during the tumultuous period when a series of foreign powers (the Japanese, the French, the Americans) fought wars over Vietnam’s governance and managed to t...more
Ted Bangay
Already reviewed by many others, here's my take on "The Headmaster's Wager."

I'm pretty familiar with the historical context of the book due to my having grown up in Canada during the Vietnam War. From that standpoint, the book provided an outstanding view of the experience of urban residents of Saigon and Cholon, the Chinese district of the city.

What I am unsure of is whether the book gives a good representation of Chinese culture, that is such things as Chinese family values, the role of fate a...more
Owen
The guy can write, no denying that. The book follows the classic historical fiction arc of family events being dimly influenced by the society simmering with uncertainty in the background. Eventually, everything comes to a head and conflict forces characters to deal with what they have been trying to ignore when they can no longer separate their lives from the surrounding politics. The twists, surprises and eventual connecting of various narrative lines and well-constructed and the literary arch...more
Jess Shulman
It pains me to give a low rating to The Headmaster’s Wager. I was fully prepared to love it from beginning to end. I loved Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures: Stories (the C-section story will haunt me forever) and was thrilled when Vincent Lam published a full-length novel. I have great respect for Vincent Lam himself; to be a successful doctor and a successful writer simultaneously is something only someone very special can do.

And I liked the story of The Headmaster’s Wager very much. It had...more
Sandra
An epic story of a Chinese man, the headmaster of an English school in Vietnam during the Vietnam war. A fascinating and horrifying snapshot of the life of a civilian in those years of war and turmoil, a man who is himself an immigrant in a country occupied by Americans. A complex love story, a heart-rending family saga ... all told in spare, perfect prose. Compelling: I lost sleep reading this novel. Highly, highly, highly recommended.
Jeanette
This was a new perspective for me on the Vietnam War. Most of what is on offer for us here in the U.S. is told from the perspective of Americans involved in that war. THE HEADMASTER'S WAGER gives us a picture of life for the common people in and around Saigon during the war. There was a lot of money to be made as a result of the war, but the stakes were high, and certain classes of people were destined to lose regardless of who won the war. I now have a much better understanding of why some peop...more
Tia Bach
Rating: 4.5 stars, but worthy of rounding to 5

Beautifully written, the words like paint strokes on a detailed painting. Percival Chan appears to have a life many would envy, especially in the midst of war and poverty. He has accumulated wealth and good standing as the Headmaster of an English-teaching academy. But his former wife never cared for him, and his son's moment of defiance creates devastating long-term problems. For all his failings, including gambling and prostitutes, he loves his son...more
J
BEWARE OF SPOILERS. I DON'T HIDE OR PROMOTE MY REVIEWS.

This book is powerful. Twice I had to put down the book, because the author had created such tension that I couldn't immediately go forward, out of anxiety for the characters.

And those two points came fairly early in the story, which takes place mostly in southern Vietnam, in the era surrounding the 1975 fall of Saigon.

Later I learned to discipline myself to keep reading, as those two early pivotal points are mild compared to the some of th...more
Judith
This strange book took awhile to catch my interest but when it was over I was really sad to leave the characters and the setting. This is an historical fiction set in Vietnam during the 60's and 70's, and because you know how certain things turned out, there is quite a bit of situational irony. I found myself gripping the edge of my chair, saying, "get out now while you can!"

Chan is the owner/headmaster of a prestigious English school in Saigon. He happens to be Chinese and this heritage alone...more
Lisa Brackmann
Vincent Lam's THE HEADMASTER'S WAGER is a suspenseful character study set mainly in Vietnam during the civil war, told from a perspective that is unfamiliar to most Americans, that of a Chinese expat, Perceval Chen, who has lived in Vietnam for decades. Perceval still considers himself Chinese and has no real interest in assimilating to the culture of his adopted home. In reality, he is a man with no country—he just doesn’t know it yet. The suspense comes in the slow building of the disaster tha...more
serena
A page-turner and I learned a lot about Vietnam and the war.
Jeanette
The Headmaster's Wager tells the story of flawed characters who struggle with their life choices. The setting for the book is Vietnam and covers the periods from Japanese occupation through the U.S. involvement in the Vietnamese civil war to the U.S. troops leaving Vietnam to Vietnamese unification.

One of the central themes in the book is mixed marriage and how children from these mixed marriages were regarded. Another theme of the book is what is right and what is wrong and the choices people...more
Michael
Stayed up tonight finishing this book. Lam's masterpiece weaves a narrative arch from the perspective of its protagonist, Percival Chen, beginning in pre-Revolutionary mainland China continuing to Hong Kong in the face of Japanese imperialism, to Vietnam under the French and Japanese, through the American occupation and finally to the North Vietnamese victory. Through this narrative we are introduced lovingly to the traditions of Chinese culture through the experiences of an expatriate whose fat...more
Deux Voiliers
Vincent Lam’s writing career has barely begun, but already he is becoming a literary icon in Canada. His Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, a collection of short stories, won Lam Canada’s most prestigious literary award, the Giller Prize, and his first novel, The Headmaster’s Wager, was short-listed for the 2012 Governor General’s Award. What is it that makes Lam’s work great?

It takes only reading the first chapter of The Headmaster’s Wager to understand that Lam excels in the art of traditional...more
Susan
This is an amazing novel and one I'm not going to forget. Vincent Lam is a fabulous storyteller and an emergency room physician when he's not writing. The Headmaster is Percival Chen, an overseas Chinese who settles in Saigon's Cholon (Chinatown) district with his Hong Kong-born wife. The two have a child, Dai Jai, who is eight when they divorce.

Percival gambles, drinks, and visits brothels. At his side is his trusted friend and colleague, Mr. Mak. It's Mak who convinces Percival to open an Eng...more
Steven Buechler
The is going to be one of the best releases of 2012.

Page 6
"Looking at his son was like examining himself at that age. At sixteen, Dai Jai had a man's height, and, Percival assumed, certain desires. A boy's impatience for their satisfaction was to be expected. Like Percival, Dai Jai had probing eyes, and full lips. Percival often thought it might be his lips which gave him such strong appetities, and wondered if it was the same for his son. Between Dai Jai's eyebrows, and traced from his nose aro...more
Deb
This is beautifully written. However, as much as I wished to follow the subterfuge and circuitous thinking, planning and emotional discordance in the upheaval of this family against the background of conflict-ridden Vietnam, I just pooped out and couldn't force myself through the dream state memories and terrifying present accompanying them.

I read voraciously and have now for half a century. My dearest friends adore marvellous literature. However, it seems that we have quite independently come...more
Charles
This is an excellent read about a less than sympathetic main character- Chen Pie Sou- born in China,he is left by his father who goes to Saigon to make his fortune-which he does in the rice business, and marries a second wife who tries to steal his fortune while taking the warehouse man as her lover. She manipulates Chen Pie Sou to be sent to Hong Kong for his education where he is renamed Percival by his teachers, and where he marries Cecilia a real harpy who does nothing but complain, especial...more
Audra (Unabridged Chick)
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...more
Joyce
This is an excellent book! Couldn't put it down and there was so much going on.

With a backdrop of the Viet Nam War, the main character grows up to become much like his father who left him as a young boy along with his mother in China to earn money in Viet Nam. He later searches out his father, finds him and he himself stays in Viet Nam. He tries to keep focused on earning a livlihood to the exclusion of everything else happening around him. As a result, he takes a back seat in his life until li...more
Carole
Vincent Lam is a terrific author. I loved his "Bloodletting and Other Miraculous Cures", a Giller Prize-winning short story collection, and this book, his first novel, was just as good.

The story takes place in Saigon during the Vietnam war and this creates a fascinating atmosphere which had me completely engrossed. The main character, Percival Chen, is a deeply flawed gambling womanizer but the poignancy of his relationships with his father and his sons creates a recurring theme which made me ca...more
Jonathan Lin
Did not finish. Heavy handed and frankly, quite boring. Rehashes the same thing over and over - yes the dad took opium - you don't need to retell the story sixteen times. Yes the headmaster likes to gamble and takes teenage prostitutes - the same description is used at least five or six times. Come on - give us something more.

Frustrated with the book. There is so much potential with the source material but the storytelling doesn't meet the challenge.

When I review books, I ask myself - of all the...more
Harvee
The book revolves around the personality of the headmaster and the changes that personal circumstances and war have on his outlook on life. Vincent Lam has created an unforgettable character in Percival Chen, the headmaster, who made me alternately frustrated and anxious throughout the book.

Percival's naivete and his strict adherence to the old traditions almost lead to his undoing and you can say that many of the tragedies in his life are as much his own fault as that of the war and the politic...more
Mariel
It's been a long time since I've been so entirely engrossed in a novel.

Lam's characters, all having their tragic flaws, made the story come to life with ample realism that was aided by the historical cognizance and accuracy of the author. The book was uncensored: an emotional, political and very often bloody recount of the Vietnam war from the perspective of a Chinese Headmaster. An incredible read.

I recommend The Headmaster's Wager to absolutely everyone, whether they have an interest in histor...more
Denise
This was a book club selection. It would not have been a book I would have chosen myself. Story line did not intrigue me. I read..Escape from Camp 14 about Korea and I found that a much better story...probably because it was real...this was a smattering of real history...but I became confused between the Chinese , The North and the South Koreans and what each wanted and what everyone was fighting for...which doesn't surprise me...I always wonder why people want to hate each other so much. I foun...more
Dana Wagner
A beautiful piece of historical fiction. I can see the scenes of 1960s-70s Cholon and greater Saigon, Vietnam - the food, vendors, cyclos, clothing, buildings. Lam's detail goes beyond sights to the sounds and smells of his war-time neighbourhoods. (Apparently Lam wrote this while in Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City and it shows in the detail - which is also eerie, not quaint, that certain of the era's economic sectors can still be seen up close). Perhaps my favourite part of the novel is its ending, w...more
gautami
Percival Chen (Chen Pie Sou) is the headmaster of a English School in Saigon, Vietnam. He is also a gambler, womanizer and also into bribing the Govt officials to keep his school on the top. Mak, one of the teachers' in his school has links and gets everything done for him. Chen does not know the connections Mak has and does not wish to know either.

Chen's son Dai Jai gets into trouble and has to be sent out of Saigon to China, their home country. Chen meets a young woman Jacqueline, who is half...more
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Read It Forward: * THE HEADMASTER'S WAGER by Vincent Lam 5 18 Sep 12, 2012 08:48AM  
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