In Heller’s fanciful fifth novel (after Man’s Storm, 1986, etc.), turmoil ensues when an elderly wife and mother in a small English village is revealed to have been an old flame of the Mahatma.
Retired schoolteacher Martha Houghton, mother of three, has always been rather more cosmopolitan than her good-natured working-class husband Sam, but theirs has been a happy marriage all the same. A shadow falls across it, however, when not long after Gandhi’s death, in 1948, Martha receives a letter from his son Harilal, who has discovered a cache of letters, some quite intimate, that she had sent to Gandhi over the previous 60 years. Harilal, who had been estranged from his father at the end of his life, invites Martha to come to visit him in India—and subtly threatens to blackmail her with the letters if she doesn’t. Was Martha Gandhi’s lover? Not exactly, although they became very close friends in the late 19th century, when the young Indian law student stayed at a boardinghouse run by Martha’s aunt, and kept in touch through the intervening years by post and during several of Gandhi’s subsequent visits to Britain. Thinking that Sam would not understand, Martha had kept their friendship a secret. Now she has to come clean. Sam takes the news in stride, but he and their children are stunned when Martha decides to make the journey to Bombay to visit Harilal. An ocean voyage to India in the 1940s is no small feat for a septuagenarian—especially one who has never left England before. But Martha, determined to put some ghosts to rest, sees a new life ahead of her, in India and at home.
A pleasant, homely tale of small lives intersecting with the great. The American author gets postwar Britain’s cramped atmosphere just right.