The Headmaster’s Wager: A Review

Book Review:

The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam

05.30.2012

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

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Category: Fiction

Author: Vincent Lam

Format: Hardcover, 393 pages

Publisher: Doubleday Canada

ISBN: 978-0-385-66145-5

Pub Date: April 24, 2012

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Here is a video clip of the author, Vincent Lam, speaking a little about his book, The Headmaster’s Wager:

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Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam is a plot-driven, cultural, and generational story of the father-and-son relationship as represented in the characters Chen Kai and Chen Pie Sou (or as he is better known by his English name in the novel, Percival Chen); and Percival Chen and Dai Jai.

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And amidst the father-and-son archetypal quest for vulnerable and honest communication, understanding, and connection, is the ambition for wealth and success, and the competitive obstacles and vices of gambling, womanizing, and drug addiction.

Mahjong tiles

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The violent backdrop of the Vietnam War is the pathetic fallacy that accompanies the repression of turbulent feelings found in the main character of Percival Chen, respectfully, affectionately, and sometimes mockingly referred to as hou jeungHeadmaster.

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There is the yearning that began as a young boy for physical and emotional closeness to his father, Chen Kai, who leaves both his mother and himself in pursuit of wealth promised in the distant land of Indochina.

That continues in his wrongly placed affection for the cruel and wealthy socialite, Cecilia, with whom he is both unloved and abused.

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What unravels is a life as headmaster to Chen Hap Sing, a prestigious school, The Percival Chen English Academy, as originally housed by the house his father built, which grew from the laborious determination of a man’s will to prosper in the business of rice mills.

This position continued its survival through his most trusted confidant and friend, Mak, an influential teacher and administrator at the school.

This survival continues even after his son, Dai Jai, is forced to leave the country after political entanglement with the Vietnamese authorities, which is assured by Mak’s myriad of contacts and connections and the power of the headmaster’s desperation and large sums of piastres-turned-gold.

Still, it is only with Jacqueline, a beautiful Annamese girl that Percival Chen finds solace and short-lived redemption.

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The tension in the book originates from Percival Chen’s competing desire to share his honest feelings and vulnerability to those he loves and the difficult resignation he finds in following what is deemed appropriate, cultural decorum and propriety. This tension first reveals itself in the restraint of Percival Chen’s emotional landscape.

The enjoyment of the book is found in the tension that explodes as further truths are revealed by the surprising plot. And as significant it is that the characters are flawed, the success of The Headmaster’s Wager as a book is that it is a richly, plot-driven story.

And Percival Chen’s compulsion to play his stakes at the mahjong table is both his curse and his gift, as the skills he uses to read his opponents along with the luck housed in the belief and faith he has in the gold nugget heirloom that was passed down to him from his father—are the very same gifts he uses to survive not only the Vietnam War, but the tumultuous betrayals and sacrifices of his love—which is of course, the headmaster’s true and highest wager of all.

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Zara’s Rating

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A special thank you to Doubleday Canada and Random House for providing me with a media copy in exchange for an honest and unpaid review.

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My name is Vietnamese.
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