Saigon in 1966 is a very lucrative place for the Chinese-born owner of an English-language academy. Percival Chen (formerly known as Chen Pie Sou) is the headmaster of a school catering to the translation needs of Americans during the Vietnam War. As the fighting intensifies, Percival continues to live a charmed life despite his gambling addiction. When his only son, Dai Jai, defies the Vietnamese authorities, Percivalís comfortable life ends abruptly.
In a futile act of protest, Dai Jai speaks out against authoritarian Vietnamese government regulations. Dai Jai is quickly arrested and tortured. Percival raises a fortune to bribe officials to release his son. Although Percival is now in deeply in debt, his reckless gambling continues. Dai Jai returns from prison severely beaten and depressed, no longer able to attend school. When he is drafted into the South Vietnamese army, Percival sends him to his native China to avoid the draft. Unfortunately, in China, Dai Jai becomes embroiled in the Communist Cultural Revolution. Even Chenís powerful contacts cannot save him.
Back in Saigon, Chen becomes romantically involved with Jacqueline, one of his students of mixed French and Vietnamese heritage. Percival sets his mistress up in an apartment with the new baby boy, and he spends countless hours with them. As the war becomes more dangerous, Jacqueline wants to leave Vietnam, but Chen longs to reunite with Dai Jai. The inevitable conflict uncovers the shocking truth about Chenís family.
Vincent Lamís novel is a new voice in the exploration of the Vietnam War. Most novels about this war are told from an American perspective. Percival Chen, a Chinese-born resident of Saigon, sees the war as an opportunity to make money for his family. His life spans the Second World War, the Japanese occupation of China, the Vichy French period in Vietnam, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and the American occupation of South Vietnam. Lamís characters are flawed human beings who struggle with their fate. Readers may have a hard time sympathizing with them.
Vincent Lam brings a great deal of family history to The Headmaster's Wager. Himself born in Canada, Lamís family belongs to the expatriate Chinese community of Vietnam. In The Headmaster's Wager, Lam draws on his own family history. The main character, Percival Chen, is based on the life of his grandfather. In the novel, Percivalís father made his fortune in North America. In the mid 1800ís, Chinese immigrants came to the Western United States and the Fraser Valley of British Columbia to work as miners. Percivalís father brings back a golden talisman. He gives the lump of gold to his young son for luck and tells him,
ďYour ancestor left it this way. He left it untouched rather than having it struck or molded, to remind his descendants that one never knows the form wealth takes, or how luck arrives.Ē (p. 4)
Lam is an emergency physician and lecturer at the University of Toronto. His first novel, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, won the 2006 Giller Prize.