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Unraveling secrets in Portugal: An interview with author Manjiri Prabhu

BY VEENA RAO*

Manjiri Prabhu’s “The Mystery of the Portuguese Heart” is a mesmerizing blend of destination thriller, psychological suspense, and romance set against the lush backdrop of Portugal’s wine country. The novel revolves around cryptic clues embroidered into lencos, traditional Portuguese “love handkerchiefs,” weaving a fascinating narrative that takes readers on a journey through time and place. Prabhu does an excellent job of making readers feel as though they are exploring the landscapes and historical monuments of Portugal alongside the protagonists.

The story follows investigative journalist Re Parkar and wine heiress Filipa Monteiro, who find themselves racing against time to unravel the mysteries hidden within the lencos. Prabhu deftly maintains a fast-paced plot with multiple twists and turns, as the story journeys from Carnation Day, the bloodless coup that ended the dictatorial regime of Estado Novo on April 25, 1974, to present-day Portugal. History and fiction blend seamlessly with well-developed characters, creating a rich, immersive reading experience.

At its core, “The Mystery of the Portuguese Heart” is a tale of love, sacrifice, and relentless hope. Through the characters’ journeys, Prabhu conveys messages of determination, resilience, and the importance of following one’s heart. Read this book if you are a travel fan, a mystery aficionado, or a lover of romance. Read it even if you are none of these but are simply looking for a well-crafted fast-paced read.

“The Mystery of the Portuguese Heart” is a fast-paced destination thriller that takes readers on a journey through Portugal’s wine country. What inspired you to set your story in Portugal?

I have always been fascinated by Portugal – a somewhat familiar country (thanks to the Portuguese influence over Goa and Porto Wine) but to the far west of Europe. Culturally rich, with fascinating landscapes, traditions, and dramatic and magnificent monuments with intricate work, I felt that it was the perfect country for a 36-hour destination thriller. Someone once said – I would like to see the world twice, once through my eyes and the second time through yours. With my destination thrillers, I like to say – I would like to help you see the world twice – once through your eyes and the second time through mine. I felt that Portugal was a perfect offering for readers to see through my eyes. I go a step further with my destination thrillers and try to reintroduce that country in an appealing light, in the hope of building cultural bridges between India and that country.

The plot is intricately woven around cryptic clues embroidered into lencos, or “love handkerchiefs,” a Portuguese tradition dating back to the 17th century. Can you tell us more about how you came upon this tradition and what motivated you to weave your narrative around it?

Before making the itinerary for my Portugal trip, I was researching legends and culture, and I came across this beautiful tradition of the love handkerchiefs from the 18th century, Minho region. I found the idea highly romantic – the concept of a girl embroidering on a white linen handkerchief and offering it to her beloved in private. If, in a public space, he displayed and dropped the handkerchief, it meant that he had openly accepted her friendship and proposal. The emotions of the lady were expressed beautifully and artistically through the embroidered motifs of flowers, hearts, keys, and messages, and I felt that the handkerchiefs were the perfect tools to carry my trail of clues – they perfectly combined the essence of a relationship and the thrill of a journey.

The novel has a fast-paced plot where the two protagonists, Re Parkar and the wine heiress Filipa Monteiro, are running against time on the trail of the lencos. What were the challenges of writing a complex narrative while maintaining suspense and keeping readers engaged throughout the story?

My novels have always had complex narratives, multiple twists and turns, and grand finales, but the arc of the layered characters is as paramount as the mystery. The challenge is always maintaining a credible timeline, a balance of the past and present since the novel moves between these two. Also, the fact that the journey of the two protagonists towards the truth, their every step, as well as their visit to every city had to be justified by logic and a twist in the narrative and plot.

Were any of the characters based on real people? How did you ensure that you got the culture and feel of Portugal and its people right?

Not really, although all the people I met were charming and helpful. The best way for me to incorporate the right feel of culture in the book is by just soaking into the energy of the country. That is why actual visits are a must for me. I love to breathe in the air of the place, talk to the people on the street and in the parks and shops, take part in their festivities, enjoy the landscapes and swoon at the sunsets – simply absorb it all at an emotional, spiritual, and conscious/subconscious level, so as to recreate it all in the book, through my characters, their emotions, and situations.

How long did you research the setting in Portugal? What kind of support did you get during the research process?

The research in Portugal took place over 18 days and the Portuguese Tourism (Visit Portugal and Visit Porto and the North Portugal) took an active part in the trip. They ensured that I was taken to the cities that I wanted to visit in North Portugal and that I was a respected guest and author. There were experts in every city willingly sharing insights into the history and culture of the city and country. But the research did not end with the trip. It continued for at least 6 months more, while I delved deeper into the different cultural and historical facets of the country that are relevant to my novel.

The novel is described as a psychological suspense tale, but at its heart, it is a love story. How did you balance these different elements while crafting the narrative?

I believe love is a universal emotion – the soil that balances and fills the gaps in every relationship, every situation, and every problem. The solution to resolve all issues. And I pepper my novels generously with it and sometimes use it as a foundation to build the novel on. The emotions of love, loss, and longing in a tale, not only encourage deep psychological insights but also hold the thrill and the mystery together. Sometimes they go hand-in-hand as in “The Mystery of the Portuguese Hearts.” All I had to do was ensure that the love and the mystery coexisted, on parallel tracks, occasionally parting but eventually merging into the finale.

In one of your articles, you have compared mystery fiction to motivational fiction because it inspires readers to persevere against adversity and find hope. How did you incorporate this theme into “The Mystery of the Portuguese Hearts”?

“The Mystery of the Portuguese Hearts” is basically a novel about determination, making life work for you no matter what, and finding your wins amidst your losses. It is a tale of relentless hope and eternal love, pitted against the more blatant experiences of murder and chaos. But I also feel that Ana’s story reveals that the past does not always remain in the past, moving on and letting go does not mean that the past is done with and that a great future CAN be inherited from the past – it can rise to full glory, if only you will allow it to. What can be more motivational than this?

What do you hope readers will ultimately take away from reading “The Mystery of the Portuguese Heart”?

I hope that they love the novel, in its entirety! But if they have to take away a few thoughts, here they are – Follow your heart. Or in the words of Ricardo, who tells his granddaughter Filipa – “Never compromise on love, follow your heart always carissima…in the end, nothing else matters…” The second takeaway is – no matter what you do in your life, give it your hundred percent – love, career, family…Regrets are inevitable but never lose hope and never give up. Live life on your terms with determination and belief. In the end, all’s always well that ends well. And finally, the one message that I give in all my books – live with compassion, peace, and harmony. The world is indeed one big family, with similar aspirations, dreams, and relationships – we all need compassion.

Do you have any upcoming writing projects you can share with us?

I am working on 3 books simultaneously – a destination thriller, a library thriller, and a biography – all rather intense and time-consuming projects and I wish there were 3 Manjiris handling them!

Buy the book on Amazon.

*Veena Rao is an award-winning Indian-American author and journalist. She is the founding editor of NRI Pulse.  Her debut novel, Purple Lotus, is a 2021 American Fiction Award winner, a 2021 Georgia Author of the Year finalist, and an award-winning finalist in the multicultural and women’s fiction categories of the 2021 International Book Awards.

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