Jul 26, 2012

Book Review:The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam

The Headmaster's Wager
Published August 14, 2012; Hogarth
Genre: historical fiction
Rating: 5/5
"Tricks, Mr. Cho? Isn't this a mah-jong table?" said Percival, as he began to wash the tiles. "The only tricks are those of luck. Two hundred per player, then?"
"If you want to play, let's play." Cho looked up from under his eyeshade. (ch. 9)
About the book: Percival Chen, headmaster of an English language academy in Cholon, Vietnam in the mid 1960s, decides to wager a large sum of money in a mah-jong game, putting his school in jeopardy if he should lose.

The stakes are high - the winning pot plus a young Vietnamese woman are part of the bet. Percival, a Chinese who believes in the traditional ways, always dreams of one day returning to China, his homeland, and tries to raise his teenage son Dai Jai in the old fashioned way - urging him to always show respect by staying within the Chinese culture and not marrying outside of that culture. Dai Jai has been seen in the company of a Vietnamese girl, however, one of his classmates.

When Dai Jai leads an illegal protest at the school to defy the government's new rule that his father's school teach the Vietnamese language as well as English, Percival sends Dai Jai off to Shanghai to prevent him from being jailed for the offense and being conscripted into the Vietnamese army.

What changes life for Percival happens after he sends his son away to China and after he wins the high stakes mah-jong game and the Vietnamese girl along with it. Percival falls in love with the Vietnamese girl he won in the bet and his formerly circumscribed life slowly begins to change. Events escalate and Percival's life is affected dramatically, by the girl as much as by the war in Vietnam, the American presence there, and by the tumultuous political changes in China that affect his son Dai Jai.

My comments: 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 political upheavals around him. Percival navigates rough waters and at the end of the book, I wanted to read more about this interesting fictional character.

About the author: VINCENT LAM is from the expatriate Chinese community of Vietnam, and was born in Canada. He is an emergency physician in Toronto and a Lecturer at the University of Toronto. His first book, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, won the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and has been adapted for television and broadcast on HBO Canada. He co-authored The Flu Pandemic and You, a guide to influenza pandemics.

I won a copy of this book.


  1. The novel is extremely well written and presents the tragedy of Vietnam from a fresh and different point of view. It is not a depressing novel. It may seem unlikely that a positive, life-affirming message could emerge from this story, but one does , one which I found deeply moving.Highly recommended.

  2. It's hard to swallow the fact that it's your own fault. Would like to read it.


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