UNTOLD STORY, by Monica Ali. Scribner, 259 pp., $25.
Monica Ali's first novel, "Brick Lane," made waves in 2003. Some hailed it as a realistic portrait of Bangladeshi life in London, while others condemned it as exaggeration and fabrication. Her fourth book, "Untold Story," makes no pretense at realism. Instead of drawing back the curtain on immigrant lives, Ali writes a happy-ish ending for that most tragic of English roses: Princess Diana.
What if Diana staged her own death? What if she got a new face, moved to a small American town called Kensington, and started all over again? It's an audacious fantasy, and I was eager to go along for the ride. But the novel isn't up to its own daring conceit. If Diana never knew who she was, "Untold Story" never convinces us that it knows who she might have become. Even the most outrageous fiction needs to ring true.
Diana is now Lydia, another middle-aged woman in Middle America. The woman who held the hands of AIDS patients and walked among land mines now volunteers at an animal shelter. The woman whose desperate, futile affairs were splashed across the tabloids now has a strong, silent boyfriend who loves her. The brightest of the glitterati now wears drab clothes and has a gaggle of gal pals who gossip about plastic surgery in exaggerated American dialect: "Lydia loved the way Amber said 'Oh my God.' It was so American. It reminded her of how English she felt after nearly ten years in the States, and that when everything else about her felt not so much hidden as worn away, her Englishness, at least remained."
Then a paparazzo from the old days comes to town and suspects the truth. The novel picks up pace: The reporter is convincingly scary, and the former princess is spunky as she protects her humdrum new life.
But why write this book? You remember where you were when Diana died, how grisly her death was. Whatever your opinion of royalty, you spent 16 years in the grocery store checkout line, clocking Diana from virgin bride to dead divorcee. Ali does not offer a compelling reason to reimagine that ending. This depressed woman who vaguely misses her sons bears no relation to the princess who lived ardently and died horribly.
Did Ali intend "Untold Story" as satire? Are we meant to understand that America is where beauty and passion go to put on sweatpants and slowly fade? Or does Ali really think that loving a good man and helping dogs can cure princessiness? Or perhaps Diana is trapped in both Kensingtons, bound in each life to rules and regulations that cause her to disappear.
If you find yourself reaching for big, contradictory meanings, there's something not quite right. With that said, this is a strange enough book to reward the few hours it will take to read it. If you have any interest in Princess Diana you will find yourself engaged, if only by the limits of your own ability to go along with the fantasy.