Saturday 23 September 2017

Review: Untold Story by Monica Ali

Doubleday, €12.99, Paperback

Monica Ali's fourth novel, Untold Story, does itself no favours: all the publicity surrounding its launch (as well as the blurb) has given away the mystery of the first half of the novel.

Lydia, an English woman living in the US who bears signs of plastic surgery, can't get rid of her cut-glass accent, is kind to dogs and children and has a mysterious past with a controlling husband that she won't talk about. She is in fact Diana, Princess of Wales.

In Ali's book, shorn of her royal titles after her divorce, Lydia becomes increasingly paranoid and erratic. Escaping death narrowly in Paris, she decides to fake her own demise by drowning -- her "little plan", as she calls it -- with the help of Standing, her private secretary. Since we know her identity, the initial sections, set in the small town of Kensington, USA (of course), to which she has escaped, seem baggy.

The central question of the book is whether Lydia can ever live a normal life. At the beginning we see her choosing dresses (a green one reminds her of her previous glamorous self) and talking about dates with her Kensington friends.

Ali intercuts these pastoral scenes with entries from the private secretary's diary, detailing the run-up to the little plan. Writing in the stuffy idiolect of a man who has repressed his passions, Ali convincingly demonstrates how Standing could feel that in hiding Diana he has done his life's work, while showing how being in the orbit of such a person inevitably leads to heartbreak.

Menace then intrudes on Lydia's idyll. First, in the form of a boyfriend whom she loves but is unable to confide in; second, in the form of the aptly named Grabowski, a paparazzo who during her public life had hounded her furiously.

Holed up in Kensington, where he is compiling a book of his photographs, he spots Lydia. Initially attracted to her, he then realises that she has exactly the same eyes as the princess.

So begins a game: will "Grabber" grab the evidence he needs to reveal Lydia's life to the world, or can she outwit him?

Ali winds up the tension expertly, leading to a fraught climax.

Most criticisms of this book focus on the faint whiff of bad taste. How can it be right to publish a book about a woman who died so tragically?

But if we follow that line of reasoning, then we ought never to publish books about 9/11, or even the Second World War.

Diana was, and is, an enormous part of the public's psyche, and fiction ought to provide just as much of a platform to explore it as all the biographies published in the past decade. The most important question is whether Ali has done anything to add to our understanding of this fragile creature who rocked an ancient royal house.

The answer is not really. The fact that it is Diana-Lydia who is being stalked makes no odds. She might have been any Englishwoman in any US town, fleeing a powerful ex-husband. Untold Story is a superior thriller. Enjoyable, yes. In bad taste, maybe. Incisive fiction, no.

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