What if Princess Diana hadn’t died, but, aided by her besotted press secretary, had faked her death and fled to America to live under an assumed identity? Is this an interesting question? Is a novelist justified in exploring such a supposition? I believe the answer to both questions is ‘no’.
What if Princess Diana hadn’t died, but, aided by her besotted press secretary, had faked her death and fled to America to live under an assumed identity? Is this an interesting question? Is a novelist justified in exploring such a supposition? I believe the answer to both questions is ‘no’. In writing Untold Story, Monica Ali has made a serious mistake.
Ali relocates Diana, ten years on, to a dull American town called Kensington (geddit?). Kensington’s chief claim to fame is a particularly successful undertaker’s establishment. (The implicit ironies remain unexplored; like most of the novel’s thematic trails, this one peters out). Diana, now called Lydia, her hair dyed dark, her nose surgically altered, finds a direction for her famous caring abilities at a dogs’ rescue centre. Three sterotyped women — dressy blonde Amber, plump scruffy Suzie, kooky Tevis — provide the undemanding, supportive friendship denied her in ‘real’ life. There is an equally bland, good-natured suitor, Carson, who cuts down trees, fixes blueberry pancakes for her breakfast, and looks good in his jeans. Has ‘Lydia’ found the cosy normality Diana always (apparently) craved?
Lydia’s only link to her past is a hidden box of cuttings about the sons she left behind. However, she feels secure enough to abandon her brown contact lenses, and this is her undoing. Enter ‘Grabber’ Grabowski, a paparazzo who once got his living and his kicks out of shadowing the Princess. Uncanny that he should turn up in this same backwoods town. Grabowski is a cardboard villain with unusual powers of observation. He unmasks Lydia by noticing the small greenish rim encircling one of her irises. Spying on her at night, hiding in the bushes outside her house, he can see through the distant window that her eyes are red. He breaks in, she turns a gun on him, and he observes the tiny gold flecks glinting in her deep blue iris.
Like hell he does. The book would be laughably silly if it weren’t offensive. It’s hard to detect that Ali is actually a good writer. The plot is ludicrous, the dialogue platitudinous (‘Being with other people doesn’t stop you being lonely’), the descriptions are hackneyed (‘the occasional fern glowing emerald green against earthy brown’). Ali began by telling us that ‘Some stories are never meant to be told’ (stop there, then), and that ‘some can only be told as fairy tales’.
Indeed it might have been interesting to reshape the Diana story using the tropes and archetypes of fairy tale, but after a cursory ‘once upon a time’ opening she abandons this idea and instead gives us a limp thriller interlaced with scenes from a feelgood soap opera. The only sections that go deeper are the diary entries of the press officer accomplice. An historian, he’s aware that his chivalric adoration of his mistress is causing him to falsify history, but this potentially worthwhile line of enquiry is cut short; he dies, suddenly, of a brain tumour.
It ought to go without saying that Princess Diana would not have allowed her sons to follow her coffin to the grave while she sorted out a new life for herself in another continent. And however ‘hunted’ she was, it seems unlikely that she would have settled into suburban anonymity with the quiet restraint Ali gives her. It is tasteless to speculate about the resurrection of a mother whose sons still mourn her, even behind the veil of fiction, and it feels as if Ali at some point sensed that she’d bitten off more than she ought to chew, but decided that to return would be as tedious as to go o’er. Having intruded upon Diana, she then bows down before her, her reverential attitude preventing any fresh insights.
Unless you passed the 1990s in a high-minded haze, Untold Story won’t tell you anything about Diana you didn’t already know. It’s a queasy failure of moral and literary imagination. Don’t buy it.