The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam
Although Vincent Lam‘s first novel hit shelves months ago, I waited (and waited) to read it because I was afraid – seems to be my modus operandi for follow-up titles to books I’ve cherished, unable to move on for fear of grave disappointment. Lam’s interconnected story collection, Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, arrived Stateside in 2007, having already made Lam the first-ever first-time author to win Canada’s top Giller Prize the year before. And how much did I love Cures? I just now noticed that the paperback edition comes with an excerpt of my review for San Francisco Chronicle across the top of the cover!
So I finally opened Wager with trepidation, and then because I couldn’t read while driving, running, folding the endless laundry late into the night, I also stuck the story in my ears (admirably read by Feodor Chin) whenever the book wasn’t open in my hands. No reason to interrupt four generations of Chen men because daily life must go on!
Wager pivots around Percival Chen, the titular headmaster of a Saigon English-language academy. Chinese-village born, British-educated by way of Hong Kong, Chen enjoys a privileged, wealthy life – gambling and womanizing being two of his favorite pastimes – in Cholon, the predominantly Chinese section of Saigon. He holds on to his perceived Chinese superiority, disdaining the locals as less-than-equals, especially dismayed when his only son is caught associating with one of the academy’s students.
In 1966, Vietnam’s turbulent politics literally arrive on Chen’s door. The secret police present Chen with a document demanding that “Vietnamese language instruction must be included in the curriculum of all schools, effectively immediately.” For Chen, who has never even bothered to learn well the language of his adopted country, the insult does not go unnoticed, nor does his uncooperative response sit well with authorities. When his son goes missing, Chen must rely on his confidante and employee, Mak (Lam’s most surprising, awe-striking creation – not to play favorites, ahem), to barter for his son’s life. Chen’s life all too soon becomes unrecognizable, as one of the most traumatic periods of modern history sweeps through.
Inspired by his Chinese expatriate Vietnamese family history, the Canadian-born Lam chooses a pivotal moment – the period before the Vietnam War – still relatively little known in western literature. He intertwines Asia’s violent colonial history (the French, Chinese, then American control of Vietnam, the British in Hong Kong, the Japanese in Hong Kong and China) and its internal civil destructions (the north/south Vietnamese split, the Chinese Cultural Revolution) with one family’s multi-generational, multi-country rise and fall from impoverished villager to American immigrant-to-be.
The result is another miraculous (literary) cure indeed. And with an utter sigh of relief, I can say with all confidence: Lam’s debut novel was well worth the wait!