Untold Story by Monica Ali - review

Joanna Briscoe is bewildered by Monica Ali's reinvention of the Princess of Wales

Monica Ali makes some surprising decisions, to say the very least. After her Booker-shortlisted, bestselling debut Brick Lane, she came up with a book of short stories whose setting was inspired by – well, her second home in Portugal. Not every publisher's dream followup, nor, one would hazard, every reader's. Next she chose to write about a hotel kitchen. Now this fine literary author has devoted a novel to the subject of Princess Diana.

Untold Story is the tale of what might have happened to Princess Diana had she lived. Yes, the real Princess of Wales, Diana Spencer, Lady Di; she of the pie-crust collars and St Tropez yachts; she of the heir, spare and landmines. What if, instead of dying in a car crash in 1997, Britain's Queen of Hearts, by then hounded by press and royals into panda-eyed derangement, could tolerate the torment not a moment longer and disappeared on a dawn swim, supposedly drowned and munched by sharks? Just suppose. Let the untold story begin.

The novel opens in small-town America, where Lydia, as she is now known, lives a quiet life, surrounded by a small group of friends. Immediately we are plunged into the familiar world of American suburbia, with three women – brunette, blonde and redhead – waiting for Lydia to turn up for her birthday meal. So far, so surreal. It reads like Judith Krantz meets Jonathan Franzen, the trashiest of premises dressed in fine-tuned observation.

We then discover just how this has happened. Diana-Lydia beaches up as planned on a Brazilian shore, where she's whisked off for hair dyeing, cosmetic surgery, tanning and vowel-roughening. She is profoundly and eternally devastated by having abandoned her sons, but life in Blighty, exacerbated by her conviction that she would be bumped off, had become intolerable. A loyal private secretary, Lawrence Standing, her sole accomplice, guides her through her transformation into a long-haired brunette with glottal stops and a nebulous past as a British divorcee, and she finds refuge in the US, land of reinvention. She chooses a dozing townlet called Kensington – the name tickles her – and becomes a dog handler in a canine shelter. Oh, Monica. Really.

Lydia has a pleasant boyfriend called Carson, who is never permitted emotional intimacy because of the humdinger of a secret lurking in her breast. Ali is not quite at home with her transatlantic dialogue, overdoing all the "dang"s and "kind of schlubby"s. Since when did any American add the definite article to "Lincoln Center"? But there is something endearing about the strength of Lydia's friendship with these women, the poor hunted Diana in their sisterly midst.

However, hard-won tranquillity is about to be shattered. A seedy paparazzo snakes into sight. Having spent all his early career photographing one Princess of Wales, John "Grabber" Grabowski is casting around for somewhere quiet to work on a book. Also idly taken by the name Kensington, he fetches up with his telephoto lens and an eye for a pretty lady, and is soon leching at attractive local Lydia, who no longer bothers with her disguise of brown contact lenses. Despite her "repertoire of self-adjustments", something about her ultramarine orbs, her laugh, her very walk, is eerily familiar. Grabber is too well acquainted with that face down the end of a lens not to focus on those eyes with their distinctive tiny circle of green round the right pupil. He has stumbled on the story of his life.

The novel is narrated in the third person, as well as through Lydia's letters to Lawrence and Lawrence's diaries, and it demonstrates psychological subtlety that the potboiler it resembles would never possess. Ali makes of Diana a complex character, who disappears by necessity behind her own disguise. Once Grabowski is on the chase, the novel takes on a thriller-like quality, with tension propelling what is essentially a bewildering but patchily enjoyable read.

Curtis Sittenfeld achieved a balance of fact and fiction with American Wife, about Laura Bush. Taking on an icon of Diana proportions is more challenging: with the highly familiar history welded to an invented tale, it's hard for the reader to let go and wallow in the narrative, and the novel comes dangerously close to painting itself into a corner. Unremittingly silly yet containing real pace, this is an ill-advised, debatably insensitive – indeed, almost unworkable – project, skilfully executed. Should we now be watching out for Ali Smith on Carla Bruni, Hilary Mantel on Lindsay Lohan? Probably not.

Joanna Briscoe's novel You will be published by Bloomsbury in July.


Joanna Briscoe

The GuardianTramp

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