Really hard to get my thoughts around this novel. Yes it’s a novel about war. Yes it’s a novel with a love triangle. Most of all it’s a novel about the human condition.
Why do people do the things they do? I’m still not sure what motivated these combat photojournalists. Why they continued to push the boundaries. I’ve read other novels (both non fiction and fiction) about journalists and war…but none have touched me this way. Often after reading these novels I am left angry. Angry at politics, angry at impossible circumstances people find themselves in. I’ve even been angry at journalists that seem to place themselves in danger and danger to others with nothing but fame and glory on their minds. However, I felt none of that with this novel. I felt incredible sadness, and an inability to understand the motives of these journalists. I guess that’s not exactly true. I did understand, but it was all so complex. Almost as if everything was right there…I could see it, but it just remained a sliver of air out of my grasp.
That’s why I really loved this novel. I’m not so sure I can explain, but Helen, Sam and Linh had so many parts that made the whole. The depth of what drove them forward day after day and shot after shot…well…it left one breathless. It shows us just how complex the human psyche can be. There might be one thing that started them each on their journey, but there were so many facets that all combined to build them into the people that they were. So many parts that pushed them through day after day. Yes, glory was part of it, but only a small part. They were all products of their history…they were all products of their present. They were all products of their future. Products of their jobs. Of their countries. Of their families. And finally, products of each other. You take away one single element and the whole thing collapses.
How they started their journeys, how they took those journeys and how they ended those journeys were all part and parcel of who they were. But who they where could not have existed without the journeys that shaped them. One would be hard pressed to decide where one started and the other one ended.
Again, all of this continued to go around my head as I listened and really felt for these characters. It’s a novel that contained, for me, far more ideas than could be contained within the pages. For me, this is the best kind of novel. One that makes you exam more than just the words you are reading…
Shame and honor clash where the courage of a steadfast man is motley like the magpie. But such a man may yet make merry, for Heaven and Hell have equal part in him.” – Wolfram von Eschenback “Parzival
This quote at the beginning sums this novel up nicely.
I think it’s a book that people should read. I think it’s important. Doesn’t matter if you agree with war and politics or you don’t. This book is important.
As I read it, all I could think of was how people often forget that despite the politics and the cause of war…well at the end of the day, the people who fight war…well…it’s often just unsure and untested young people.
You have commanders giving orders based on information that they’ve been told. This information is being gave to them by men that don’t wish to displease him. They might not outright lie, but they certainly don’t give 100% accurate information either….Who wants to be the bearer of bad news to a commanding officer? At the end of the day, the men out on missions are pushed harder than many can endure…harder than any can endure…and the bottom line is, casualties can be offset and justified by the bottom line of damage and killings you’ve done to the enemy. When it’s all said and done, war too is just a numbers game.
My heart broke many times during this reading…and honestly, all I could think of is, “these men are only kids!!!!!!!” I don’t mean to take away from their service. There should be no way my statement could ever do that. However, think back to when you were 18. 19. 20. Now imagine watching your brothers in arm dying…or sometimes, worse, not dying soon enough…and knowing its your job to prevent it…that your decision, or hesitation, or non hesitation could cause it. Imagine knowing that the order from above will get you and your brothers killed, but it’s an order and it’s your job to make sure those orders are carried through. Imagine experiencing all of this, when in reality all you fucking want is to be back home in your lover’s arms…
As wonderful as the book was, I just can’t imagine! I can’t imagine what these young men were going through. We often get pissed at politicians for decisions they make. We often get mad at military situations…right or wrong…well that isn’t for me to decide…sure, I have my opinions, same as everyone else…but what I took from this book is that everyone dehumanizes during the event. People often forget the boys that are just out there doing as they are told. They look to congress, or the president or to the leaders of other countries…they make it an “event” or a “situation” or a “military action”. They don’t face the reality that it’s dirty, gut wrenching, diseased, no time to think reality for men that might not even be of legal age to drink. These are the men that are fighting….not some politician behind a desk…or a faceless entity. These men are brothers, sons, husbands, fathers and friends. They are not just numbers at the bottom of a count sheet…no matter how much the public and the politicians try to make it so…
This was a book that I went into blind. I read a vague description months ago, but when I read it this past week, I couldn’t remember what it was supposed to be about. I am glad that it turned out this way, as it gave me a pleasant surprise throughout my reading!
There are many well-known books that examine what it was like to be fighting in the Vietnam War, particularly from the American side. It is rare that we find a story that examines the war from the perspective of a Chinese immigrant living in Vietnam, and here, Lam has created a perfect cast of characters, all sharing similar experiences.
I’m not going to reveal any of the plot, as that would act as a disservice to the book. However, what I can say is that in The Headmaster’s Wager, Lam has created a world where nothing is perfect, and there is no right or wrong. Lam does not condemn, nor does he laud. Each character has their own faults, and yet their actions are all taken to survive in one way or another. An action that you may believe to be beneficial, may not end up being so, but yet out of that misstep, comes another result that may ultimately be successful. Lam expertly weaves together the idea that every action has a consequence, and no matter if it results in tragedy or happiness, life will go on.
The timeline jumps from various decades, beginning in the 30’s and ending in the late 1970’s. This could seem jarring in many books, but Lam presents in such a fashion that it becomes essential to character building. Like I said above, some of the actions the characters take can seem extreme and excruciating, however, just when we think we hate a character, or what they do seems unrealistic, we are transported back into another decade and some of the motive is explained.
Whilst this is ultimately a story of the human condition in a time of war, there is also an interesting historical element that Vietnam War enthusiasts, or even those with just a passing interest, may enjoy. I knew very little concerning the war before I started reading, and the story teaches you several different aspects to the war, the different people/countries involved, and first hand experiences of what life was like for the people in Vietnam (whilst this book is a fictional tale, Lam’s family emigrated from Vietnam, so some parts are based on recollections that he heard from his family), and so you come away feeling like you understand the time period a lot more.
I hate to make this comparison, but in a sense, it is like the film Titanic; you ultimately know what is going to happen due to hearing bits and pieces here and there about the true life events, but you end up hoping that events take a different course, and you learn about the minor players, the behind the scenes action, and all the cogs that make the motion. This suspense that Lam creates really is brilliant.
If you’re looking for a read that will fill you with the spectrum of emotions, a read that will pique an interest in the history behind the Vietnam War, a read that will make you question human motive, then this is the book for you. Take a leap of faith and jump into this book without reading the blurb, or any plot reviews.