In the acknowledgments section of The Happiness Jar (Storytorch Press, 336 pp., $34.95), author Samantha Tidy thanks Gary McKay, the author of of In Good Company and The Men Who Persevered, “for all things Vietnam and beyond.” Tidy and McKay are Australians, and much of this book is set in the land down under. One of the main characters, Brian Hudson, is an Australian Vietnam veteran, “struggling with the long term effects of the war and has been missing since he walked out on his wife Beth and their two children in the dead of the night twenty years ago.”
Brian and Beth’s daughter Rachel dies of cystic fibrosis at the age of twenty–seven, “intentionally leaving behind secrets that push each of her remaining family to question what it is they want from life.”
This is a book of journeys—the journey of Matt, Rachel’s bricklayer son who has not made much of his life, and the journey of Beth, the mother, who had devoted all of her life to keeping Rachel alive as she is fighting cystic fibrosis. Rachel’s will propels Matt into the vast Australian outback where he makes a surprising discovery in an Aboriginal settlement. Beth journeys to Varanasi, India, to the banks of the sacred Ganges, where she, a woman frightened of filth, enters the river and disperses Rachel’s ashes into the “silver blanket” of the sacred river.
The novel contains much that relates to the plight of the Australian Vietnam veterans. Flashbacks are called “khaki-colored memories.” Brian, the father and husband who disappeared, is afflicted with them. I won’t act as a spoiler of the story of a family destroyed by the forces of the Vietnam War, but I will say that this one of the best Australian novels related to the what Tidy calls “war nobody would talk about.”
There are many powerful scenes in this novel. My favorite comes near the end when Beth experiences Kundalini, her dark night of the soul, through eating a very spicy vindaloo.
Tidy uses many puzzling and flavorful Australian words in the book. One example is “Esky,” an Aussie word for a beer cooler.
Tidy does a marvelous job creating and bringing alive the alien world of Australia for this American reader. Her prose is so evocative I could feel the ever-present flies crawling on my eyes and ears as I read the book.
I highly recommend this book to those who know little or nothing of Australia’s contribution to what we imprecisely call the American War in Vietnam.