Tuesday 16 January 2018

Review: Untold Story by Monica Ali

Doubleday, €12.99

DIFFERENT ENDING: In the fictional version of life, Princess Diana manages to escape Prince Charles but not the paparazzo, despite having plastic surgery
DIFFERENT ENDING: In the fictional version of life, Princess Diana manages to escape Prince Charles but not the paparazzo, despite having plastic surgery

Aine O'Connor

Every dead celebrity inspires, to a greater or lesser extent, a what- if-they-didn't-die conspiracy. Elvis (as we know) is alive and living in space with Marilyn, Jimmy Dean and Kurt Cobain.

In the nearly 14 years since her death, Diana, Princess of Wales, has mostly inspired conspiracies about the manner of and motive for her demise; was it accident or assassination? In Untold Story, however Monica Ali extrapolates a lesser but surely not non-existent conspiracy, imagining life for Diana in the decade after she faked her own death.

Diana, who is now Lydia, is 45 and has settled for the last few years in small town America called Kensington. She has had facial surgery, much time for thought, and now has a life that mostly makes her happy.

She works with animals, has three good friends, Tevis, Suzie and Amber and a nice solid boyfriend, Carson, who is finding her secretiveness increasingly difficult to take.

But this calm new life is coming to crisis point because a paparazzo who used to be obsessed with Diana also ends up stumbling upon Kensington where the friendly locals tell him about their other Brit, Lydia. If he doesn't work out who she is, she will certainly recognise him and her serenity is lost.

The main story is narrated in the third person, the backstory, how and why Diana faked her own death, is told through the diary of Lawrence -- the man who helped her plan it all and who in the last days of his life wants to write the story. Diana/Lydia herself contributes too in the form of letters to Lawrence.

The book has to spend a lot of time explaining and re-explaining Diana/Lydia's reasons for running and leaving her sons. The device of having Lawrence to explain her paranoia and moral and emotional distress means that Lydia can concentrate on delivering the torment and a contrast between who she was and who she has become, without sounding like a whiney self-apologist.

In some senses Untold Story, Ali's third novel after Brick Lane and Alentejo Blue works (she has also produced a book of short stories). The timing of its publication in the run-up to the wedding of Diana's eldest son has raised a few eyebrows, especially in the UK. But Untold Story holds an interesting premise, and Ali deals with it well in most respects.

At no point does she make running and changing identity sound easy, although the unquestioning surgeons are always going to be an issue with someone as famous as Diana.

There is something oddly hackneyed about the new life, the picture-perfect town, the three friends, one blonde, one brunette, one redhead, and the conveniently fabulous boyfriend. Lawrence and the paparazzo Grabowski are in some ways better written than Lydia who felt largely one-dimensional. It's as if Diana's real history is used to build the character rather than the writing.

That said the writing is often good, occasionally very good, and there are lots of interesting insights. However, it doesn't attain the tone needed to feel like a very good book. The female friends and friendships were plucked from chicklit, not life, and this ultimately pulls the book down. It also felt too long, though the pace picked up towards the end.

It's enjoyable and readable, but feels like Ali needed to work it more, as if she was surprised just how many layers there would need to be. I didn't care too much about what happened to Lydia. But I do want to know what happened to Lawrence's diaries.

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