What if. . . ?

Monica Ali bases her new novel on the premise that Princess Diana faked her own drowning to escape the paparazzi and returned as ‘Lydia’ in smalltown America.

Fame played a significant role in the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Not just the paparazzi who hounded her car into the underpass in Paris, but also the constant scrutiny – at times bordering on obsession – that transformed her from a vivacious and charismatic teenager into the guarded, haunted and apparently very lonely divorcee, living out her fears and neuroses under the public’s ever-critical gaze.
Diana’s public profile was an unending loop that fed upon itself but never offered the prospect of escape; it doesn’t take a psychotherapist to conclude that the “cognitive dissonance of spending one day talking to amputees in Sarajevo and the next being pursued by paparazzi whilst wearing a tiger-print bathing suit is hardly a recipe for emotional stability.”
But what if Diana did manage to retreat from the limelight? Supposing she didn’t actually die on the last day of August 1997, and retired – in a manner of speaking – to start off a new life in small-town America? Could she enjoy life again, on her own terms, or would her psyche be irretrievably scarred from life in “The Firm”? This is the oddly beguiling premise that underpins Untold Story, the new book by British writer Monica Ali.
The departure point for the book is simple: Stretched to her emotional breaking point, the princess engineers her disappearance through an apparently fatal accident that leaves no traces. Cosmetic surgery, a new name – Lydia – and relocation to the United States offer the prospect of a new beginning. But is this enough to leave the past behind, the privileges, the prestige, her family and friends? And, perhaps more to the point, does she want to leave all this behind? Even Diana’s staunchest supporters would acknowledge that she often toyed with the press, for her benefit as much as theirs; could she walk away from all this – and, more importantly, would she be allowed to walk away? The dramatic device – a faked drowning – is convenient, if not particularly original. (British parliamentarian John Stonehouse faked his death thus in 1974, to marry his mistress; Harold Holt, prime minister of Australia, disappeared in similar circumstances in 1967, leaving behind a wealth of conspiracy theories.) Likewise, the book is introduced with convenient but stereotypical set-pieces: Lydia’s disappearance is facilitated by Standing, her erstwhile private secretary who seems drawn from central casting with his stiff upper lip and loyal deference to his liege; once in America, she is befriended by warm, well-meaning but slightly garrulous women of a certain age; and then Grabowski, a paparazzo who comes across her by chance in her bolthole, is as sensitive and thoughtful as most in his profession – which is to say, he is coarse, uncaring and without a discernible moral compass.
That said, once one works through these clichés, what emerges is a sympathetic, at times insightful portrait of a woman held captive by the demons from her past. The princess, as imagined by Ali, is by turns impulsive, caring, sentimental and volatile. Yet we appreciate that the woman was – is? – complicated, not contradictory; her emotional fragility becomes a human trait, rather than evidence of a petulant and pampered princess.
Ali – the author of three other books, including the award-winning Brick Lane – sets up the denouement skillfully. She contrasts Lydia’s past – as seen through the eyes of her loyal secretary and comrade-inarms – with her present, as the relative calm she finds in Kensington – an obvious pun – is threatened by Grabowski, who plots to expose her for personal gain and without thought for the devastating consequences, not just for Lydia, but for those whom she left behind.
One must ask the question about the ethical propriety of using Diana’s life and “death” as a springboard for fiction.
Of course, so much malicious fiction was written about her while she was alive that a sympathetic – and entertaining – novel scarcely offends. Ali succeeds in portraying the princess as human – complete with the frailties that assail us all – rather than as icon, set upon a pedestal only in order to be toppled. But then, there is also the matter of her sons, who feature prominently in the princess’s agony about the past she left behind.
Playing with the facts surrounding their mother’s death seems a little unfair, one feels. It’s not in the league of the celebrity magazine culture that Ali sends up, but perhaps not so far removed either. And in this, Ali strikes a sour note – although one that does not ultimately detract from an enjoyable read.