• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Untold Story by Monica Ali

Monica Ali imagines what Princess Diana did next.

Let’s pretend Princess Diana didn’t die, that she faked her own death, went from blonde to brunette, had plastic surgery and is living incognito in small-town America. That is the shameless premise of Monica Ali’s Untold Story. How tasteless, how very jump-on-the-bandwagon and clichéd, you might think. So do I.

It would have been extremely tricky for Ali to resurrect Diana from her 1997 car accident in a Paris tunnel; there would have been too many insurmountable wounds for our pretty protagonist to emerge unscathed. Instead, Ali downplays the crash and makes Diana’s point of departure her boyfriend’s yacht after she goes swimming and is presumed drowned.

Her story is taken up 10 years later, when she is in her mid-forties, living in the tin-pot American town of Kensington under the name of Lydia Snaresbrook, working at canine kennels and wearing her uniform of dowdy jeans as the closet clothes horse tries to keep well under the radar.

She has a clutch of gal pals, who, in the badly written first chapter, come across as dreary, desperate housewives, living lives of banality in contrast to the glamour the former royal was used to. Adding to her careful coterie is Carson, a devoted boyfriend who wants more from this mysterious woman, so reticent about divulging any personal history while she keeps her suitor at arm’s length lest he guess her real identity. He, too, fails to come to life on the page.

The strongest character in the novel is Lawrence, Lydia’s former private secretary. Through a clandestine exchange of hot and heavy letters between the princess and her loyal servant, we learn how she and he carefully planned her exit strategy.

The letters also give Ali the opportunity to revisit the complex personality of the world’s most famous royal celebrity as the author appeals to students of l’école Diana well versed in stories of her increasingly unhinged behaviour toward the end when she was convinced she was going to be assassinated. Hence the implied need to fake her own demise before somebody else expunged her.

In her afterlife, Lydia trains to become a beauty assistant and lives in boarding houses, where she finds it difficult to form friendships because of her trust issues from former betrayals. Is her afterlife any better than life with all its problems at the palace, we wonder, as the princess turned peasant battles with bulimia and the bottle while poring over women’s magazines searching for pictures of her beloved sons.

This is where Ali fails to overcome the impassable problem she has created with this icky fiction: that it would be a big ask for any die-hard Di fan to whom the novel might appeal to accept the Princess of Hearts would ever abandon her children for such a high-risk route of self-reinvention. What if she were found out? How would the boys feel then?

Enter the worst character, in every sense of the word, in this wretched book – Grabowski, a London-based paparazzo who turns up on Lydia’s turf and twigs to her ID. At first he fancies the leggy stranger with the amazing ultramarine eyes he spots in the street, but when he trains his lens upon her he thinks it’s too much of a coincidence that this Englishwoman has the same quirk of green inset around her right pupil that the princess once had.

Grabowski’s leaden pursuit of Lydia in his attempt to bring home the story of the century reads like one of those cheap thrillers you buy at the airport, as he stalks his prey and she in turn returns to her old habit of flirting with the enemy.

Untold Story is a cheap low-down read, which is why I fully expect to see it turn up on the small screen as a TV mini-series. I hope I won’t be the one to review it.

UNTOLD STORY, by Monica Ali (Doubleday, $39.99).

Jane Bowron is a Christchurch TV critic and journalist.