The world is a high-stakes game of chance in Vincent Lam’s The Headmaster's Wager
The Headmaster's Wager
By Vincent Lam. Doubleday Canada, 400 pp, hardcover
Vincent Lam’s Giller Prize–winning debut, Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, followed a group of young doctors advancing through their studies and into their careers. The dozen stories in that collection knowingly illustrated the intricacies of healing and patient care, and were celebrated as much for their subject matter as for the author’s sensitive and succinct observational powers.
Returning to fiction after last year’s eponymous biography of Tommy Douglas, Lam demonstrates his skill at long-form fiction with his first novel, The Headmaster’s Wager.
Unfolding against the backdrop of combat, in Cholon, Vietnam, during the 1960s and ’70s, the author depicts the titular headmaster of the Percival Chen English Academy (a character who previously appeared in Bloodletting’s pages) as he struggles with the fallout of protecting his teenage son, Dai Jai, from the scourges of the Vietnam War and China’s Cultural Revolution.
The men of the Chen family have lived in Indochina for generations. Percival’s father arrived from China seeking his fortune, and was later joined by his son, who left Japanese-occupied Hong Kong with his then-wife, before Dai Jai was born. Chinese nationalism resides in their hearts, as does opportunism, and Lam develops these motifs while exploring the legacies, intended and otherwise, that fathers bequeath their sons.
This sweeping tale shows Percival flourishing once the adolescent Chen is smuggled to presumed safety in the People’s Republic, the principal cultivating both a clandestine relationship with Jacqueline, a beautiful Eurasian who soon gives birth to a baby boy, and strategic alliances with influential American expats. His personal and professional spheres are shattered, however, when he learns the desperate conditions of his beloved motherland and the duplicity of those closest to him; Dai Jai is trapped in a Chinese political re-education camp, and Percival risks everything to return his son to Vietnam.
“Drifting from pill to pill was to live underwater, a false life beneath the surface of the real one, intruded upon by distant words and coloured shadows,” Lam writes, his hero gripped by morphine addiction and awaiting Dai Jai’s homecoming. “Day became night, and day again, as the flowers of April bloomed with an exuberance that made them unreal to Percival, and the occasional noise of heavy artillery kept time, beating gradually closer.”
Lam, an emergency physician in Toronto, vividly imparts the ways in which life is a high-stakes game of chance. Here, his ability to convey the scope of his character’s experiences through moments and gestures fills a greater canvas, artfully portraying heritage’s influence and the enduring ties between sires and heirs.
Vincent Lam will appear alongside fellow author Linden MacIntyre at the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library on Wednesday evening (May 9), as part of the Vancouver International Writers Festival's Incite series.