Most of my books have a dual timeline and I continued this approach with The Fortune Teller of Kathmandu (published on October 31st 2023).
My books are nearly all about the second world war in South-East Asia, inspired by the research I did into my father’s wartime experience as a prisoner of war of the Japanese on the Thai-Burma railway. For some of my books, for example Bamboo Island: The Planter’s Wife and Bamboo Road: The Homecoming, my central character revisits a time or place from her past and resolves mysteries or unfinished issues from long ago. In others, a character in the present day, or at least in modern times, is inspired by an event or a revelation to look into the past of a family member, making surprising discoveries along the way.
The reason I write my stories that way is because that is how I started out with Bamboo Heart: A Daughter’s Quest, my first novel, which was vaguely autobiographical. My central character, Laura, a twenty-something lawyer, makes a discovery about her father’s wartime past which leads her to travel to South-East Asia to the place where he had been incarcerated and enslaved during the war to find out more. I think that the quest for knowledge about family history is a powerful impetus for a character’s journey and really resonates with readers. That connection between past and present seems somehow more meaningful than a straightforward story about the past (although done well, such stories can be just as memorable).
In The Fortune Teller of Kathmandu, I weave two stories from past and present. Firstly, the 1940s story of Lena, a young Eurasian woman living in Darjeeling in British India, who accompanies her employer, British army lieutenant George Harper, into Nepal to recruit young soldiers into the Gurkhas to bolster the allied campaign on the Burma front. In the modern-day strand, her granddaughter Chloe, reads Lena’s wartime diary and embarks on a journey of her own to India and Nepal, discovers the secrets Lena guarded for a lifetime and finds romance and adventure along the way.
The challenge was, as ever, ensuring the modern-day story was as interesting and compelling as the historical strand. Chloe is at a turning point in her life, having just come out of a long-term relationship, grieving for her grandmother and looking for answers to questions never addressed during Lena’s life. Chloe lives in a place I know well, the Surrey Hills in the UK, countryside I walk in every day, so it wasn’t difficult to conjure up the settings for Chloe’s story. Chloe has never travelled before, so to embark alone on a journey to India and Nepal is a brave act. For Chloe’s travels, I drew on my old diaries and memories of my own backpacking days in 1987 when I made similar journeys (in particular the trek to Ghorepani and Poon Hill in the Annapurna range) with a schoolfriend.
I also included some momentous events from Nepal’s modern-day history in Chloe’s strand, which reflected some of the things Lena experienced in 1940s India to link the two time-lines more closely.
For Lena’s story, I drew upon my own impressions of Darjeeling, Nepal and Burma, through my own visits. Also, the extensive historical research I’ve done over the years on the second world war in SE Asia, as well as more recent research about particular aspects of the Burma campaign. In particular the fascinating and little known story of the Wasbies – the Women’s Royal Auxiliary Service, Burma – unsung but courageous women who risked their lives to support soldiers on the front line.