A re-imagined People’s Princess we never would have known

June 27, 2011

Picture, if you will, a novel about what became of Princess Diana that doesn’t end in a Paris tunnel. Imagine it with no trace of Dodi Fayed or Prince Charles, no outright mention of Kensington Palace. Erase the affairs with the heart surgeon, the cavalry officer, the art dealer. Cut out the ancient lineage, the sheltered childhood, the frantic love affair with the press. Lobotomize the woman’s entire past, while you’re at it. Then have her choose to live out her days with small-town American housewives who have no idea who she really is.

That, in essence, is what we have here: a book with an image of Diana on the cover and no recognizable Diana inside. Welcome to Monica Ali’s “Untold Story,” a dazzling feat of literary bait-and-switch.

Ali’s unhappy princess is desperate to extract herself from the media circus. We are not told exactly why, apart from her sense that she has become increasingly dangerous to her children. When her desperation becomes overwhelming — all too evident in episodes of bulimia and self-immolation — she decides to take the situation into her own hands. With the help of a loyal private secretary, a man with a convenient past as a spy in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, she makes it look as if she simply drowned one night while on a swim — as if she disappeared into the black, shark-infested waters of the Atlantic. Fleeing through the boondocks of Brazil, she dyes her hair brown, acquires a wig and a pair of dark contact lenses, has plastic surgery to alter her nose and hires a voice coach to “rough up her accent.”

If you can sustain credence through all that, sail on. In time, you will be rewarded with a dragon.

Diana arrives in the United States as Lydia Snaresbrook, a divorcee who would rather not talk about her past, a heartbroken young mother who has elected to leave children behind rather than stay in an abusive marriage. She is a tragic figure whom small-town American housewives can readily understand. And so we begin our story:

“Once upon a time,” starts this princess’s tale, “three girlfriends threw a little party for a fourth who had yet to arrive by the time the first bottle of Pinot Grigio had been downed. Walk with me now across the backyard of the neat suburban house, in this street of widely spaced heartlands, past the kid’s bike and baseball bat staged just so on the satin green lawn, up to the sweet glow of the kitchen window, and take a look inside. Three women, one dark, one blonde, the third a redhead — all in their prime, those tenuous years when middle age is held carefully at bay. There they are, sitting at the table, innocent of their unreality, oblivious to the story, naively breathing in and out.”

The three friends, in other words, are oblivious that the woman for whom they are waiting is a princess in distress. Which is good because Lydia needs nothing so much from them as their ignorance.

Kensington, which Lydia chooses for the ironies of its name, is a sleepy little town somewhere in the United States. Lydia finds a part-time job at the canine rescue center; she acquires a modest house on a quiet street. Soon, fitting seamlessly into American life, she adds an adoring mutt named Rufus and a strong, silent boyfriend named Carson, both of whom mercifully ask no questions. Her new friends in Kensington say things like “Where the heck?” and “Jeez Louise!” and eat Pop Tarts for breakfast. One can’t help wondering how Ali, who is a Bangladesh-born Londoner, arrived at this artless picture of America.

Artless is not a word I easily associate with Monica Ali. Her first book, published eight years ago, was the brilliant and powerful “ Brick Lane ,” a story that took a young girl from Bangladesh to London and from innocence to wisdom. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won Ali many devoted readers. Her second book, “Alentejo Blue,” was an uneven collection of loosely connected stories about English residents in a remote Portuguese village. Her third, “In the Kitchen,” was yet another departure: the story of a young English chef in a chic London hotel, with a shocking murder to answer for. With every progressive book, Ali has reached for other worlds. There’s nothing wrong with that. Joseph Conrad did it to perfection. As did E.M. Forster and as does Kazuo Ishiguro. But, alas, no such heights are reached here.

“Untold Story” unfolds as part narrative, part epistolary tale. Lydia’s secretary, who has served her admirably — indeed, sacrificed his own life for her caprices — now sits in a distant sanctuary, dying of an inoperable brain tumor, scribbling his patchy memories for posterity. But for all his efforts to set down an explanation for her rebellion, the royal family never quite comes into view. The palace, coyly referred to as KP, never materializes. Instead, we become far more familiar with Lydia’s American refuge: her clueless kaffeeklatsch, the kindly but meddling owner of Kensington’s bed and breakfast, and Lydia’s manly but — as one of her friends might put it — totally schlubby new love interest.

Into this American idyll slithers the mandatory serpent: British paparazzo John “Grabber” Grabowski. He is in Kensington by chance, just passing through. But one day, as fate would have it, he looks up and sees her eyes. The princess has long since stopped wearing her contacts, and the blue that he sees there is striking, the green circling the right iris unmistakable. He is a photographer, after all, with a long history of stalking royals. The novel now kicks into something else: a fast-paced cat-and-mouse thriller.

You can read this last part with considerable, fuel-driven interest. By the end, all the pistons are firing. But there’s a creepy feeling, as you turn each page, that you’ve been brought to the game on false pretenses — that instead of a fully realized novel about a fascinating woman, you’ve been slipped an entertainment about an action hero. Monica Ali has to be admired for her stubborn unwillingness to fall victim to readers’ expectations, but she wanders far afield this time. You can’t help but wonder why.

Arana is a writer at large for The Post.

UNTOLD STORY

By Monica Ali

Scribner. 259 pp. $25

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