A Book Devoured: Review of The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam

A Headmaster's Wager book cover
Photo: Vincent Lam

Before I was a lover of fashion, food or makeup, I was an avid reader of books. There's something about words on paper (or screens) that has always fascinated me. I've learned about new worlds, new philosophies and ways of living through books and my love of a good story is a large part of why I write at all. Since reading is one of my favourite pastimes, it seems only appropriate to share it on my blog. I hope that by doing so, I can help you find some good reads and avoid the duds. The more people who read, the better the world will be imo. Also, please feel free to share your recommendations as I'd love to hear them and chat with you about them!

For my first review, I'll start things off with the debut novel by famed Canadian writer, Vincent Lam. Being Chinese-Canadian, I'm always drawn to stories by authors of similar backgrounds to me. Lam somehow manages to cross over that stereotype of the "Asian-Canadian writer" and into a more subtle territory of shifting identities and histories with his work, and the Headmaster's Wager is a perfect example of that.

In the book, readers follow the life of Percival Chen, a Chinese immigrant in Vietnam during the onset of the war. To say that Chen isn't very likable is an understatement; this character is a prostitute loving, mah-jong gambling, whiskey drinking, blindly patriotic "businessman" whose only concern is how much money he can wring out of his students; however, he is also a doting father who literally would give up everything for his only son, Dai Jai. One day, Chen is forced to confront the changes happening in his adopted country when his son makes a foolish mistake that changes their lives forever.

As a reader knowing little of the Vietnam War, watching Chen's rose-colored glasses being slapped off his face is eye-opening. While I abhor Chen's tendency to stick his head in the sand, I still feel his agony over his increasingly desperate efforts to save his son. Chen is weak and deliberately ignorant, but he is also determined and sometimes thoughtful. After all, you have to be pretty bad-ass to kick a morphine habit with just 1 bottle of drug-laced vodka and a locked door.

The Headmaster's Wager starts off slow, but slowly crescendos into a searing examination of greed, family and the terrifying way that war can obliterate everything you know. If you're looking for a thoughtful novel about the personal effects of war that isn't overly depressing or heavy, then I recommend this book.

Available via Chapters for $20.65

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