Maybe Princess Diana didn’t die.
Here’s a little something to rock your mind: you know Diana, beloved and ill-fated figure, mother of the future king of England and charitable woman extraordinaire? In Monica Ali’s imaginative novel Untold Story, her fate was not to die in a crash in a Paris tunnel. Though the world continues to mourn Diana, especially as the tenth anniversary of her death approaches, life has continued on.
And Lydia has tried to continue with it. In the American Midwest, a nondescript but pretty brunette with a lilting British accent lives a quiet life. Lydia passes the time working with animals and befriends a group of women in the quaint town of Kensington. In the years since she arrived in the U.S., no one has paid much attention to Lydia — except the men who drift in and out of her life, never gaining enough traction to crack her harsh exterior. Terrified of revealing too much of her background, Lydia has mastered the art of listening while offering little personal information. But someone from the past may not want the past to stay hidden . . .
Monica Ali’s Untold Story was a book I knew I had to read from the moment I got a glimpse of its cover. The black-and-white image clearly looks like Diana — and I’m trained to look for anything relating to the princess. My mother followed Diana closely; she was a very beloved figure in my household. When she died in 1997, Mom was absolutely devastated. She mourned Diana like she was family. She certainly felt like a friend.
When I worked at a local bookstore, I continually combed the shelves for anything new relating to Diana — and when I heard about Untold Story, it went straight on my wishlist. And while I found it to be a fascinating story and a creative reinterpretation of history, it didn’t bowl me over the way I’d hoped.
Ali, beloved author of works like Brick Lane, has quite the reputation in the literary community. She took a chance on Untold Story and I think it paid off — even if the book has been garnering much criticism. Here’s how I feel: few writers would gamble on something as weighty, meaty and controversial as writing an alternate history based on a beloved public figure’s death . . . and have her not die. I won’t reveal to you the hows or whats or whys, but I think it’s clear that Diana was in a bit of a tailspin at the time of her (real) death. Ali did a remarkable job of fleshing out the circumstances under which Diana became Lydia, and I believed it could happen.
The story’s real narrator — and the person to whom I felt closest — was Lawrence Standing, Diana’s fictional personal secretary. We’re given the background Lydia doesn’t share through Lawrence’s personal diary entries and know immediately that his health is poor. The narrative fluctuates between 2007 and the many years before, and Lawrence’s dated entries help us piece together the truth of what became of Diana. And Lydia.
What I found fascinating was that Diana’s name is never — not once — uttered by a single person anywhere in the novel. Through her transformation, Diana truly has become Lydia Snaresbrook, a woman with a truncated history who explains away her English ways by explaining only that she came to America with a husband she later left — a man who was not faithful to her (and that’s partially true). We all know Lydia is Diana. Of course we do. But no one else does, and that’s the real trick of the thing.
Here’s the thing: I read and read and read waiting for The Big Reveal. Based on dramatic tension, I knew there was no way Diana wasn’t going to be outed as Diana. What would her small town friends think? What would happen to the tiny American town of Kensington (cute), a place ill-equipped for the sudden fame it would experience? What in the world would become of Harry and William, Diana’s beloved boys, when they learned the truth of their mother’s fate.
But I was left with many questions and no answers. Ali does an admirable job sinking into Lydia’s psychosis and presents Diana as a paranoid, crazed, obsessive and desperate woman on the brink of disaster . . . and the rest of Untold Story seems to be an exploration of her grief. It’s impossible not to feel for Lydia/Diana, but she’s not a very likable person. I kept hoping the really good stuff would come in as the truth began to unravel, but I was left marooned on an island of Ali’s creation. I didn’t get any of the closure I sought.
I’m not going to get all saucy and scream, “Don’t read this book!” I mean, honestly — it’s not that bad. Disappointing and sad and a little long-winded, sure. It could absolutely have been better. But I’m not Monica Ali. Those decisions weren’t mine to make. If there had been more of an exploration of the media’s role in Diana’s death — both real and imagined in Untold Story — the story might have made for a weightier, more timely book. But armed only with this novel and its meandering plot, I have to say I’d hoped for more.
3 out of 5!