Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam

I don't want to say too much about this book, because a lot of my enjoyment came from the surprises.  Set in Vietnam in the 60s and 70s, it centres on the life of Percival Chan, the headmaster of a respected English school in Saigon.  Ethnic Chinese, he moved to Vietnam as a young man to be reunited with his father following the death of his mother.  He discovers his father is indeed wealthy but addicted to opium and living under the control of his second wife, a Vietnamese woman, which prejudices Percival against Vietnamese women for much of his life.

With the Japanese occupation, Percival is no longer able to continue his father's rice import/export business so instead starts the school with the help of his neighbour and friend, Mak.  Percival is extremely naive, a gambler and a womanizer, but is forced to see some of reality when his son gets into trouble and must be rescued and eventually smuggled back to China.  Lonely following this (and his divorce) he turns to a Vietnamese/French woman, Jacqueline, and, despite his hesitations, falls in love with her and their son born shortly after.

But as civil war rages on in Saigon, and eventually the Americans evacuate, nothing comes easy to Percival, Jacqueline or their son.  The novel is a troubling story of war, desperation, betrayal and the difficulties of love.  It took a while to get into it, but by the end I had trouble putting it down.

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