In her latest novel, Britain's Monica Ali imagines a life for Diana, Princess of Wales, that survives beyond that fatal car wreck in the Alma Tunnel in Paris in 1997. Untold Story will undoubtedly earn comparisons to American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld's fictionalized life of Laura Bush. But Princess Di is more aptly identified with an earlier first lady: the haunted and hunted Jackie Kennedy, who remarried to rid herself of a dangerous family name.
Ali presents us with an iconic blueblood wife, likewise in fear for her life. The Princess of Wales is terrified that a vengeful Royal Family is planning her demise. She is equally frightened of her own reckless, unstable behaviour; worried most of all that she may damage her children in some irreparable way. Together with her devoted private secretary, she stages her disappearance in shark-filled waters off the coast of Brazil. She dyes her hair dark, grows it long, has a nose job, inserts uncomfortable brown contact lenses - and presto! Diana, Princess of Wales, becomes divorcee Lydia Snaresbrook, living in Middle America.
Ali has fun. Still, the story, while light, possesses some valuable insights into the nature of contemporary celebrity and the tenacious grip of female fantasy. For me, the book was something of a revelation. Although I had seen the Princess of Wales everywhere, all the time, demure and stunning on the cover of frivolous magazines, and on nightly news coverage of AIDS, land mines and child welfare; and although I knew more than I strictly needed to know about her private life - her interfering in-laws, the implosion of her marriage, her tawdry love affairs, her battle with bulimia - I was surprised to encounter in this book her thoughts and feelings. I realized I had never perceived her as fully human. In truth, Ali's novel is more readable than riveting. But it does convince me that Diana had an ordinary woman's heart, just as it convinces me that "ordinary woman" is a role Diana, Princess of Wales, would find almost impossible to play.
Ten years after "the accident," we find Lydia Snaresbrook residing in Kensington (the irony of the town's name amuses her), where she works at an animal shelter and quite literally cares for "the underdogs." She belongs to a lively clique of women who make up a suburban version of Sex and the City. On her good days, Lydia putters about her house, meets friends for lunch and marvels at her independence. On bad days, she hungers for the old adulation and anguishes over her decision to abandon her boys. That's when she heads to the drugstore to gather an armload of magazines, which she scours for articles about her children. Lydia has been seeing a handsome insurance adjuster. But recently, he has started asking too many questions. To make matters worse, a Fleet Street reporter - a passionate royal watcher - has arrived at Kensington's local B&B.
Ali has published three previous books of fiction. But she is still best known for her debut, Man Booker-nominated Brick Lane, the chronicle of a Bangladeshi woman who immigrates to harsh East London with her much older husband.
Untold Story can also be read as an immigrant tale about a woman who reinvents herself in a strange country, her present cruelly severed from her past. Writing the immigrant experience remains Ali's clear strength and central preoccupation. But here, the theme plays out weakly. It's as if she cannot quite get her mind around her own creation; not surprisingly, she finds it difficult to reconcile the notion of royalty with the notion of marginalized outsider. While Ali's unequivocal technical skills keeps the action humming, her depiction of Lydia is, for the most part, bland.
Lydia does burst to life, however, in the diary entries of her former private secretary interspersed throughout the novel. The figure of Lawrence Standing is based on Diana's real-life private secretary, Patrick Jephson, and he is easily the book's most compelling character. Lawrence is dying of brain cancer. An esteemed historian, he should be using his last lucid weeks to complete his landmark chronicle of Britain at the turn of the century. Instead, he writes in his diary, obsessively recounting the details of the princess's escape. In so doing, he inscribes a compassionate portrait of the flawed and magnificent woman he served and adored; a true story that after his death remains untold.
Donna Bailey Nurse is a Toronto writer and editor.