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The Headmaster's Wager

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3.87  ·  Rating details ·  4,522 ratings  ·  640 reviews
A superbly crafted, highly suspenseful, and deeply affecting debut novel about one man's loyalty to his country, his family and his heritage

Percival Chen is the headmaster of the most respected English academy in 1960s Saigon, and he is well accustomed to bribing a forever-changing list of government officials in order to maintain the elite status of his school. Fiercely
...more
Hardcover, 400 pages
Published April 24th 2012 by Doubleday Canada (first published January 1st 2012)
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Average rating 3.87  · 
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 ·  4,522 ratings  ·  640 reviews


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Jeffrey Keeten
Sep 18, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: vietnam
”The soil in this country is red from all the blood that is soaked into the earth. When each war ends, another soon begins. The Japanese, the French, the Americans, someone else in the future, so what does it matter what they say in Paris? The land itself bleeds.”

 photo Vietnam_zps26fff426.jpg

World War Two came early to Shanghai. In 1937, during the Battle of Shanghai, the Japanese invade and occupy Shanghai. They stay until the end of the war. Percival Chen A.K.A. Chen Pie Sou made his way to Hong Kong where he could ha
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Friederike Knabe
Apr 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: canadian-lit
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 (Again)
Oct 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Trish
Aug 08, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: ebook, fiction, war, asia
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
Jess Shulman
Nov 18, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: literary-fiction
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 all
...more
Owen
Nov 03, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Sandra
Jul 09, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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.
Jill
Sep 09, 2012 rated it it was amazing
“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
LibraryCin
3.5 stars

Percival is a Chinese man living in Vietnam during the war. He runs an English school, and he longs to go home to China. When his son is arrested and later released, Percival arranges to have his son sent to China so that he’ll be safe. As Percival moves on with his life with Vietnemese-French woman Jacqueline, he worries about his son.

This one started really slowly for me. It went back and forth in time, and with a few characters having both Chinese and English names, I was slightly co
...more
Jeanette (Again)
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
J
May 25, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: debut-novel
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
Ted Bangay
Aug 26, 2012 rated it it was ok
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
Tia Bach
Oct 04, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
DeB MaRtEnS
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
Mona
Oct 16, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I couldn't decide whether to give this 3 or 4 stars..Percival's story is very tragic. Trouble is, he's an unlikely tragic hero, as his habitual greed, self-absorption, denial, lying, rigidity, self deception, and hedonism bring a lot of his troubles on himself. It is difficult to to care about him although that changed towards the novel's end. Also, the book is too long. A lot of repetitious and unnecessary scenes could have been cut and the book would have benefitted. Certain key scenes are ver ...more
Lisa Brackmann
Jul 16, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Michael
Dec 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
Judith
Dec 16, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Beverly
This was a 4.5 star book for me.

In this magnificently ambition tale a politically naïve Percival Chen, the headmaster of a successful English academy in 1960s Saigon believes in the superiority of his Chinese heritage and the value bribes are the keys to his success. After all this has worked with past conquerors, the Japanese, the French and the Americans–no matter how temporary their stay but being oblivious to the newest player for control will challenge Percival beyond his nightmares.
I was
...more
Mary Soderstrom
Aug 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
Last year I discussed this book with four book groups, with varying results. One, a group of old friends who had lived through the Vietnam War years (or as they say in Vietnam, the American War) found it very dark and troubling.

They're right. The moral ambiguity of the headmaster, Percival, is the least of
Amber
it's finally out holy crap

you told my English class a year and a half ago this was based on a short story in Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures

time to see if this is as boring as that story was
Chung-yee
Apr 28, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a great read, a page turner from start to finish. Anger, excitement, suspense, intrigue, violence and love intricately woven into a moving and heartbreaking story.
serena
Sep 11, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction, asia
A page-turner and I learned a lot about Vietnam and the war.
Sara G
May 19, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm not sure I can entirely put my reasoning into words, but I really liked this book about the Vietnam War framed around the experiences of a Chinese man living in Saigon. Percival fled Shanghai when the Japanese invaded and went to Hong Kong, then fled to Vietnam after Hong Kong was invaded. He's been followed by war his entire life. He has to make tough choices to try to keep his son safe and I can only imagine how that would have felt.

Percival is a very morally grey hero. He gambles a lot (
...more
Greg
Jun 28, 2018 rated it really liked it
I found this book among the shelves of my air bnb in Dubrovnik, and what a surprise. a beautiful novel that combines significant episodes in Chinese, Vietnamese, and American history to explore familial ties and national sentiments. Thoroughly enjoyed the pacing, even if I found the penultimate events a bit disappointing.
Joanna
Jun 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
Epic story, heartbreaking, history lesson.
Audrey
Apr 17, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 1-book-group
3.5 Stars.

I really enjoyed this. The first part was a bit slow but after that, I couldn’t put it down. The characters, especially Perceval, were really well drawn and one could get a definite sense of place and time. One could also see how everyone survived during this tumultuous time period. It was interesting and unique to read about the Vietnam war from the perspective of someone who had been living there but not involved in politics or the war itself.
krystal
I saw this book on my aunt's kitchen table so that's why I wanted to read it.

(Me: Uncle, what is this book about?
Uncle: I think it's your aunt's book.
Aunt: Yes, I just started it.
Book: I'm a book about a compulsive gambler navigating a multi-ethnic Saigon during the Vietnam War!
Me: Oh, cool.
Me, inwardly: A narrative about Sino-Vietnamese people during the Indochinese Wars? With an anti-hero who owns his over-inflated ego and identity issues along with an English-speaking private school? *gasps*
...more
Charles
May 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Aubrey
3.5/5

Sometimes reality throws books at me whose components are such an equivocating mix of 'fucking finally' and 'same old same old' that my quibbles aren't going to prevent me from rating it positively enough that others who need a far heavier dose of reality will (hopefully) be lead towards it. Welcome to a story that's the immigrant narrative in some ways and a far more honest record of colonization in others, history proving itself once again stranger than any sentimental drip or gore porn c
...more
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Play Book Tag: The Headmaster's Wager / Vincent Lam 1 15 May 21, 2018 08:21PM  
Around the World ...: * Vietnam 1 14 Jul 30, 2016 07:11AM  
Read It Forward: * THE HEADMASTER'S WAGER by Vincent Lam 5 30 Sep 12, 2012 08:48AM  

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