Untold Story imagines that Britain's Princess Diana didn't die in an automobile crash in 1997, but instead faked her own death by drowning a few months later, and now lives incognito (as Lydia) in a small town in North Carolina. Her life is dull and predictable until the arrival of a vacationing British news photographer who recognizes her despite her disguise. He stalks her and plans to expose her; the plot tension arises out of this conflict.
Joanna Briscoe, writing in The Guardian, sums up this book very well when she describes it as "an ill-advised, debatably insensitive -- indeed almost unworkable -- project, skillfully executed." She also references American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, a book I really enjoyed, and which I believe is more successful than Untold Story, if only because its real-life inspiration (Laura Bush) is more of an enigma (and hence a blank canvas) than Princess Diana.
So why did I read Untold Story? Only because it was written by Monica Ali, whose Brick Lane remains one of my favorites. I was really curious to see what a literary talent could do with this subject. And as Briscoe points out, the result is mixed.
Ali's dialogue and most of the supporting characters seem like they were lifted from a bad chick flick (the exception being Lawrence, Lydia's fictional private secretary, who engineered her escape). The book is best when it's exploring Lydia's internal life, her unstable past, her complex motivations for leaving, and her guilt over abandoning her children.
This is very much a book about what it's like to live every day with a huge secret, one that defines your entire existence but that cannot ever be shared. Ali was brave to try so risky a frame for this artistic exploration and I give her credit.
Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.