Well, then. That was an intense read. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting – it’d been months since I read the description, and I just dove in. The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam sweeps you along several decades, from the 1940s until the mid 1970s, in Vietnam, from the perspective of a Chinese immigrant. A businessman. A fairly clueless – or, at least, ostrich-like – businessman. From this man’s unique (head in the sand) perspective, we learn about the many transitions Vietnam – Saigon – underwent mid-century.
You want history? Check. Love story? Check. Soap opera-like family drama? Ohhh yes. Sex? Drugs? Violence? Check. Check. Check. Classism? Duh. Racism? Check. Politics? War? Power? Loyalty? Betrayal? Of course. Everyone is divided. From white ghosts to Anamese to métisse (mixed) background capitalist Chinese, everyone is the enemy. And your friend. Depending. When Percival takes a métisse lover, he marvels at her strangeness, comparing her to milk. She responds:
The yellow think I am more white. The white see the yellow. People always see the portion of other more clearly than that of self.
And that, my dears, could easily be the theme of the novel, if it were as simple as that. With so many sides, so many secrets, and so many threats, the battle between self and other is only one of many. The atrocities of war are brought nauseatingly to life – the completely uncalled for cruelty never justified. This is not a read for those with weak digestive systems.
In sum, read this if:
- You relish learning about history through fiction.
- You don’t read a whole lot, and want absolutely everything packed into your novels to make it count.
- You do read a whole lot, and love complicated plots.
- You can remain optimistic in dire circumstances.
- You know you didn’t start the fire.