The Headmaster’s Wager. Vincent Lam.

Lam, Vincent. The Headmaster’s Wager. Doubleday Canada 2012. F; 07/12.

I don’t think I’ve reviewed Lam’s first book Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, but I loved it. The doctor/author thing obscures my response a bit through the jealousy I’ve already discussed. But I enjoyed the nice clean capable Asian ER doctor spinning a yarn about his early medical life, which took off on wings of lovely transparent writing and an almost Murakami-level loaded ambiguity. This one is more ambitious but less successful, which may be why it hasn’t won any prizes.

We get a setting-autobiographical three-generation historical Chinese-Vietnamese menu focusing on a weak but loyal family man pushed and pulled by money, his children, war, and his appetites, in which (I see this more and more) the author hots up the stirfry with thriller plot twists and assorted offal of exotic violence.

Running through it all is a consistent but for me just-a-bit overemphasized vein of Chinese spirituality (family, luck as a spiritual force). Moral issues swirl everywhere but finally cohere in the heart of Percival, headmaster of an English-language school with his deep and multi-level ambiguity, finally obscure to him. Is he a lying philandering irresponsible little cheat riding the tides of his country’s corruption, or is he a loving dedicated father and everyman who would run any risk, bet his life, to save his loved ones from drowning? He’s both, of course.

I’m not sure what to make of Dr. Lam’s slightly off-target emphasis on the spirituality, and forcing our faces down into vomit-inducing spilled guts of little girls cut open alive by soldiers’ swords. I say off-target because while they get me into what I imagine is the real world where the story unfolds, somehow I can’t credit the shared point of view we should, it seems to me, enjoy with the author about his character. Straining that relationship can be an effective literary device, and as usual who knows if my problems with this are “just me”. Maybe Percival is as bad as he is because his world is as bad as it is. Sort of serious-picaresque. Dunno. But I find his Sturm und Drang just on the contrived side of where human reality is or ought to be. Compare for example Nadas’s Book of Memories. There is both less high-tension emotion and less credibility here. Something (aha! Could it be racial and ethnic background?) makes me suspend disbelief for Nadas but not for Lam this time around.

What a pleasure to watch really good writers spreading their wings and try out the air currents. I’ll buy his next one. 8.1

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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