Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Headmaster's Wager

I don't think I ever realized it before, but reading a hardcover vs. a softcover really changes the way I read a book. In large part, I think this is because I do most of my reading during my commute, and therefore tend to take off the dust jacket so it doesn't get ruined. This strips a hardcover of most of its distinguishing characteristics, including its cover design, plot synopsis, blurbs and little author bio. If I take the dust jacket off before I've properly read all of this, and before I've started the book, then I end up starting to read blind, with no pointers as to what's coming in the story or biographical clues as to the narrative. Usually I have a pretty good idea of what a book is going to be about, and then in suspenseful moments I can return to the blurbs to reassure myself. When reading Vincent Lam's The Headmaster's Wager, though, all I had were bright red covers and a black spine to turn to when the intensity shot up, forcing me to catch my breath and return to the story without any idea whether things were going to be okay or not.

The Headmaster's Wager is set in Vietnam, beginning right around the beginning of the Vietnam War. I think it would be impossible to live in the West and not have had your notions of the war consist mainly of images from American movies (my formative ideas about it come, I'm sorry to say, from Forest Gump). Lam, however, positions you on the other side of the conflict; not with the Viet Cong, but with a Chinese immigrant living in Saigon. Headmaster Percival Chen runs an English academy, and although many of his students go on to work with the Americans, he is unconcerned about the war, and actively works to learn nothing about what's going on. He is Chinese, the war is about Vietnam, thus, it does not concern him. This nationalistic streak proves dangerous, however, when the government decrees that all schools must teach Vietnamese. Percival refuses, both on principle and because he is trying to demonstrate his Chinese pride to his son Dai Jai. This small act, coming right at the beginning of the novel, becomes the fulcrum for everything that follows – a small act of defiance that changes everything.

Dai Jai, wishing to impress his father, stands up in his Chinese school and refuses to take a Vietnamese class. Percival, not wholly ignorant, tells Dai Jai not to leave the house, for fear he will be arrested. But when Dai Jai goes out to see his girlfriend, a Vietnamese student of his father's who he has been forbidden to date, he is caught. Percival is beside himself, and his ex-wife demands that he get their son back. Mak, Percival's friend and a teacher at his school, works his connections and eventually manages to get Percival a meeting with a shady contact who demands a huge sum of money for Dai Jai's return. Percival exhausts his connections looking for the money. He borrows far more than is safe, he raises tuition prices, he gambles, and in the end he cobbles together the money to pay for Dai Jai's release. This leaves him egregiously in debt, but it is worth it, for the safety of his son. Then Dai Jai is drafted, and Percival works to have him returned to safety and school in Shanghai. 

That narrative could be an entire novel in itself, but Lam's novel is much wider in scope. The Cultural Revolution is heating up in China, the war in Vietnam is becoming increasingly violent and uncontrolled, and Percival wins an introduction to a young woman (and a lot of money) in a mah jong game (this scene had me so stressed out I could hardly read it), adding yet another twist to his life, this time one toward a confusing and unexpected happiness.

Lam's novel has a lot of twists and turns, and often, just when you think you've sorted out the plot and direction of the story, it changes. In lesser hands, this would have had me wondering if the author knew what his book was about, but at no point during The Headmaster's Wager did I doubt Lam's total control. His work is the kind of tight, evocative, and unexpectedly emotional writing that you can't help but eat up, devouring each page in the desire for more because, dammit, you have to know what's going to happen. That he manages to wind such a compelling fiction throughout very real, and relatively recent, historical events is just astounding. Our pop culture is so saturated with the Vietnam War that to make that history seems new and fresh and unexplored is quite a feat (although when you realize that all it took – in the small scale – to do that was to change the perspective through which you see the war, you realize just how much American history has shaped the West's understanding of that conflict).

Given all that I've said – and, when you read the book, you'll realize just how much I didn't say – it seems a small detail to acknowledge the cleverness of the title. The Headmaster's Wager could so easily be a spoiler for the climax of the novel: The headmaster will wager something! Watch for it! Except that the book is filled with wagers of one sort or another. Percival has a gambling problem, he deals with numerous personal and family crises, his relationships and loyalty are repeatedly tested: the wager – the big one – is not signposted. Lam foregoes the flashing lights and signposts and leaves the titular wager up to the reader to decide for him or herself, based on both what they value and, ingeniously, what they decide in the end that Percival values most.

The Hadmaster's Wager
by Vincent Lam
First published 2012 (cover image shown from Doubleday Canada edition)

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