Mr. Lam’s first novel is a fiction inspired by his own family history.
At the heart is the story of Chen Pie Sou, also known as Percival, the headmaster of the prestigious Percival Chen English Academy in Cholon, a small city near Saigon. This character is loosely based on Mr. Lam’s grandfather
It begins in Shantou China in 1930 but the story does not linger there and soon we are transported to Vietnam in 1966. Like many others before him Chen left China in search of the so-called Gold Mountain and following the brutal Japanese occupation ended up with his new wife in Vietnam. Once there he attempted to achieve stability but his beliefs in his Chinese superiority resulted in repercussions for his son,Dai Jai, being accused of political indiscretions and sent to China on the eve of the Culture Revolution only to return by way of the North Vietnam some years later….Meanwhile Chen finds relief in his lover, a métisse he won at a game of mah-jong and makes secrets dealing with his loyal friend Mak….
This is a fast-paced portrait, a genuine page-turner full of melodrama, intrigue and surprises. It is told chronologically in the third person from the protagonist perspective. Chen is not really a likable character, he is an apolitical businessman only concerned in turning a profit and maintaining his cultural purity but this is what makes him very interesting and wonderfully human. With the War as backdrop, its secret police and theatrical politic “The Headmaster’s Wager” can only be rich in historical details although the author may have taken some liberties with his story. Nicely written this novel is a delight to read.