"The Headmaster's Wager" by Vincent Lam

Percival Chen, a Chinese immigrant, is the headmaster of the most respected English School in Saigon.  He is also a father, gambler, and womanizer.  Fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage, he has devoted himself to building his business, including bribing government officials to maintain the status of his school, and ignoring the horrors of the violence that are unfolding around him.  

But when his son gets into trouble with the Vietnamese authorities, Percival is forced to acknowledge what is taking place around him.  He must send his son back to China to keep him from the war and puts himself in debt to do so.  Percival takes solace in Jacqueline, a woman of mixed French and Vietnamese heritage, and their whirlwind union produces a son.  But on the eve of the Tet offensive, the war lands on Percival's doorstep and he must confront all that he has desperately tried to avoid.  

The Headmaster's Wager by Giller Prize winner Vincent Lam is a beautiful story of love, sacrifice, and family set during the Vietnam War.  Well-written, the characters are wonderfully developed and deeply loveable despite their flaws.  What you read remains with you long after you finish the book.

Though I have a degree in History, this part of history is something I'm not very familiar with.  But that familiarity is not needed with this book.  Lam does an excellent job of giving historical perspective to clearly paint a picture of what is happening and teach the reader about what life was like for those living in Vietnam at the time.  Lam himself is the child of Chinese immigrants to Vietnam and this book truly feels like it was written from the first person perspective.

This book also stands out because it is the story of a father and son.  While there are female characters, mothers and acquaintances, it is a story about male relationships and the dynamic between fathers and their children.

This is a book that demands time to read it and absorb everything that is occurring.  The history of it all is just a fraction of the beauty that is held in the book.  Lam's writing is rich, the characters are complex and the time it takes to set up the story is much needed. 

This is a beautiful novel, haunting and heartbreaking.  Allow yourself to be taken in by this book and give it the time it deserves.  I will be surprised if Vincent Lam isn't nominated for another Giller Prize with this book.  

I received this book courtesy of Random House of Canada.  The opinions expressed above are my own.


  1. It sounds interesting, but I'm not sure yet... I read another book about Vietnam: The Beauty of Humanity Movement, which I loved. So I do have an interest in the country.

    1. I had been meaning to read The Beauty of Humanity Movement but never got around to it. I think if you do have an interest in the country, you would enjoy this one. I also just finished Ru by Kim Thuy, also about Vietnam. Glad I read the two close together.

    2. Thanks, then I'l definitely will keep this in mind.

  2. I'm looking forward to this one because I quite enjoyed his collection of linked stories. And I'm guessing it'll show up on this year's Giller longlist, so I'd rather read it now than in the autumn rush of prize lists!


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