This is a guest post from my lovely and dear friend Leonicka. She told me to go ahead and “hack it at will” but I don’t believe in perfecting posts for this space. It’s all about spontaneous thoughts and reactions to the books, even if spelling/grammar gets sacrificed (ONLY A LITTLE BIT) along the way! So here is her unadulterated review 🙂
I could have chosen any book from Sabrina’s enviable stash. I could have chosen the books that had been on my to-read list for months. But The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam stood out to me. The cover design is gorgeous and rich and I was drawn to the deep tones and textures of the dust jacket. I have to admit I didn’t read the jacket copy that closely. Something something womanizer, something something son in trouble, something something Tet Offensive. All the same it was enough to intrigue me.
Lam’s new novel is about a Chinese headmaster running an English academy in Vietnam. His identity hinges on his pride as a Chinese man and as a successful business man. When his son unwittingly instigates a protest, Headmaster Chen has to draw on his wealth and contacts to keep him safe.
The writing was beautiful. Lam’s prose gives the reader a sense of the beauty of Cholon and Saigon without exoticising the country at all. I was especially thrilled with Lam’s use of food as a writing device. The dishes and meals change to reflect developments in the characters and in the plot. For example when he feels particularly insecure about his feeling for a métisse woman, Chen only eats Teochow food and makes a point to reject pho. This adds a nuanced layer to the storytelling that I really appreciated.
The most important thing in my mind is always the characters and Lam did a fantastic job with them as well. Each character is complex and multi-faceted. Though I did not always agree with their actions, I could understand their motivation. Headmaster Chen is tragically flawed in the most human of ways. He is constantly struggling to rationalize his out-of-date beliefs with an evolving world and his failures are completely relatable.
It is easy to enjoy a book when the people and settings are familiar. Lam’s success was that he made the life of a middle-aged Chinese businessman feel familiar to me. I became wholly invested in Headmaster Chen’s emotions and was able to extrapolate his situation to my own. The Headmaster’s Wager is like a journey through rolling hills: as one plot point trails off another one begins until the reader treks up to the peak to find a wonderful view below. I absolutely recommend it.