A few days ago I picked up Vincent Lam’s debut novel, The Headmaster’s Wager (Random House, 2012), and have only come up for air now that I’ve finished it. Although 400+ pages, it’s thrilling until the very last word.
The story takes place mostly during the Vietnam War in the Cholon (Chinatown) district near Saigon. Percival Chen is the headmaster of an English language institute that trains translators and interpreters for Americans in South Vietnam. But before Chen settled in Saigon as a teenager, he spent his early years in Shantou, China. His father established a lucrative rice business in Vietnam and funded Percival’s high school education in Hong Kong.
As luck would have it, Percival graduated high school just before Hong Kong fell to the Japanese in 1941. He and his high school crush, a shipping heiress named Cecilia, married so that Percival could take Cecilia to the more peaceful Saigon. In Vietnam they went to live with Percival’s father.
Life in Saigon was a tad more stable than in war-ravaged Hong Kong. Nonetheless, in Vietnam Percival witnessed brutal murders at the hands of the Japanese Kempeitai. It was during this time that he met Mr. Mak, who would become Percival’s right-hand man.
Cecilia divorced Percival several years after Dien Bien Phu, when their only son was eight. As the American involvement heated up, Percival found himself in massive debt, and against the advice of Mak, he joined a high-stakes mahjong game that would forever change his and his family’s lives.
What follows is a haunting story of love and betrayal. Lam brilliantly weaves the modern histories of Vietnam and China into his story. I felt like I was with the Chen family as they figured out what was going on during China’s Cultural Revolution. I found his descriptions of the years leading up to the Fall of Saigon–and what happened afterward–to be tense and vivid. He brings the reader right into the corruption and chaos of the times.
Lam’s own background is fascinating. He was born in Canada and comes from a Chinese family who had lived in Vietnam. But he’s not just a fabulous writer; he also practices emergency medicine in Toronto! To read more about Vincent Lam, check out his website at www.vincentlam.ca.