What if – like Elvis – Princess Diana didn’t really die? What if she were living an obscure life somewhere? In Monica Ali’s Untold Story, Diana still lives in Kensington, but in North Carolina, and works at an animal shelter.
Ali alternates the beginning chapters from describing Lydia Snaresbook’s (Diana) new life, friends, and lover ten years after her funeral, with Lawrence’s diary. Lawrence, her faithful assistant, helped her escape to start a new life; in Ali’s version, she survives the tunnel crash and later fakes her death in a swimming accident. Through his notes as he lay dieing of cancer, Lawrence reveals the details – everyone needs an accomplice to go into hiding.
Lydia starts to get sloppy with her disguise – no longer wearing the brown contact lenses, buying gossip magazines to check on her sons. By accident or fate, a former paparazzo, John “Grabber” Grabowski, happens to stop by the town; when he matches her eyes to old photos and suspects who she really is – the hunt is on.
When not mired down in the drudgery of Lydia’s new suburban life or the boring gossip of her new girlfriends, Monica Ali cleverly infuses ordinary life with extraordinary circumstances – using the mundane to reveal Lydia/Diana’s fears and insecurities, as well as her poise. Ali makes Lydia a pathetic but remarkable character, emulating the real Diana. When Lydia realizes that Grabowski has recognized her, the chase becomes a thriller.
Untold Story is not as thoughtful or satisfying as Brick Lane, her novel revealing the choices of a young married Bangladesh woman displaced in London, but Ali manages to create a story about the forlorn princess that uses Curtis Sittenfeld’s conceit in American Wife, based on First Lady Laura Bush -not quite believable – but fun to think about.