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Vincent Lam's novel, The Headmaster's Wager, is like a painting. The beginning starts off, not exactly slowly, but as a base coat, layering the story with details that will become more important as the narrative builds, until the end result is a piece of art that is complex and compelling, a masterpiece in every sense.
The novel follows the life of Percival Chen, Chinese headmaster of an English school in South Vietnam in the years before and after the Vietnam war. All around him is turmoil, conflicting forces of colonization, Communism, nationalism, invasion and resistance. Every move he makes is carefully watched by all around him, yet he convinces himself he can remain untouched by all of it by remaining apolitical, focused solely on business and on family, and sometimes by being wilfully ignorant. It is a wager he makes on a daily basis, that greasing all the right palms with lucky red envelopes of bribe money will save him and his family from the perils of being a foreigner in a rapidly changing Vietnam. He is a man who is not afraid of a wager, routinely gambling away his fortune at high stakes mah-jong tables. But when his son's antics attract the attention of the so-called "quiet police" Headmaster Chen finds himself caught in a series of circumstances that will lead him to a high stakes gamble that will alter the course of his life.
This novel is genius. If you told me that it was the tenth novel of a highly respected, award winning novelist I would believe it. It reminds me of the work of Amy Tan, not just because it is written by a North American writer about Chinese history, but because the level of craftsmanship and storytelling is so high. And this guy is a doctor. A real, medical doctor. He's already very good at something amazing. He can write too? It's not like finding out that some mediocre actor also has a mediocre rock band. It's like finding out that Geena Davis is a member of Mensa and almost made the U.S. Olympic team for archery. What the what--?!?
When I read Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures I was impressed (blown away actually)
by Vincent Lam's skill as a fiction writer, but I figured since it was a collection of stories about being a medical student and a doctor in Canada, maybe it wasn't so much of a stretch. The Headmaster's Wager, on the other hand, is in a whole different league. It's absolute genius.
Oh, and his other credits include writing something called The Flu Pandemic and You, for which he won an award from the American Medical Writers Association, and a biography of Canadian hero Tommy Douglas. At this rate, I'm almost afraid Vincent Lam won't have another novel, since maybe he feels he's mastered that now and will be moving on to, say, children's books or cookbooks (both of which I would buy, by the way).
One thing is for certain. If you ever meet Vincent Lam, you should probably ask him to build you some furniture or teach you sign language or something. Even if he's never done it before, odds are he's a genius at that too.
Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from the publisher from NetGalley.com. I was not obliged to write a favourable review, or even any review at all. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.