I changed everything, so I thought everything would be different. And nothing was. Not really. Not different enough, anyway. I always had someone to blame before. I’ve run out of culprits now.
Do you remember where you were on August 31, 1997? Of course you do because that was the day Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris. I was out celebrating the beginning of a new year of studying at university and when we heard that she had died, we didn’t believe it and went searching for a newsstand that could tell us if it was true or not. Tragically, it was.
It seemed so unbelievable that this beautiful and vibrant woman, this princess, could be killed in this way. And apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought so.
In Monica Ali’s book untold story, Princess Diana suffers a near-fatal car crash but what kills her – or rather allows her to escape her gilded cage – is an accident while swimming. Her body is never found, presumably it was eaten by sharks. So with the help of her former private secretary Lawrence Arthur Seymour Standing, she disappears in Brazil, have plastic surgery, changes the way she speaks, starts wearing brown contacts and begins a new life under an assumed identity. She relocates to USA and moves around a few times before settling in a small town called Kensington – of all things!
Here she makes a life for herself. She makes friends and she get a job working at dog shelter. She gets a boyfriend and even though she aches and hurts for her boys and devours everything the tabloids write about them, she survives.But her peace is severely disturbed when a man arrives. A man she recognizes as one of the paparazzi who used to be stalking her. The question is whether he recognizes her as well.
The book is told from three different points of view: from Diana herself aka Lydia, from her former private secretary Lawrence Standing and from the paparazzi, Grabowski. Monica Ali tries to explain both why Diana chose to leave her children and her life behind, and how she did it. Her princess Diana is emotionally unstable, is desperate to be left alone one minute and actively seeking out the paparazzi the next. She sees herself as being a destabilizing influence on her two boys and she’s afraid that the Royal family is out to get her and that if she doesn’t either kill herself or disappears, they will have her killed. She’s living a very self-destructive life and she can’t continue like that. And so, she disappears.
Now, I know that princess Diana’s circumstances were extreme but still. I have a hard time quite accepting that she would leave her sons. Ali presents her as a loving mother and that was my impression of her as well. But even if you are willing to accept that she leaves the boys, she just didn’t feel real to me. I recently read Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader about Queen Elisabeth the Second and her development as a reader, and this book made me like the Queen a whole lot more and even made me feel something of a connection to her – even though the book is not really about the real Queen. This book didn’t make me feel any connection with Diana which is weird since I’ve always liked her and felt sorry for the way she was treated. She didn’t seem like a very sympathetic character and the entire plot just seemed far-fetched. There were simply too much disbelief that I had to suspend. It seemed too unrealistic that one of the specific paparazzi who chased her, would stumble upon this small city in the US while editing a book about his pictures of her to memorize the 10th year anniversary of her death. I’m not sure either that this old and extremely intelligent former private secretary would actually help her escape – especially as he knew she would never see her boys again and how much that would hurt her. And I don’t think the general public would accept that she simply disappeared with no trace and then believe that she had died. The public sided with Diana and they would definitely not have allowed the Royal family to bury an empty hearse and claim she was dead without proof. Ali has to explain why this was accepted – and in my opinion she doesn’t do a convincing job.
Add to this, that Monica Ali’s Diana is nothing like mine. Now, I know this might be a fault with me. I had just turned twenty when she died so I might have been too naive and she might have been too good at manipulating medias and thereby have caused me to believe that she was this sweet innocent woman who had been caught up in a stock-upas well as old-fashioned family who resented her and made her life hell. I do realize that she made mistakes too and that she tried to play the medias to secure her position in the hearts of the people as their Queen of Hearts – which she succeeded with, I think. But she just seem too much a manipulative bitch in this book and I can’t quite get the two images of her to melt together.
So while the premise of this book was definitely intriguing, the actual execution didn’t live up to my expectations. I was hoping for a powerful ending that would have made me like it just a tiny bit more but instead, the climax felt out of character as well and the actual ending was a bit too open for me.
- Title: untold story
- Author: Monica Ali
- Publisher: Doubleday
- Year: 2011
- Pages: 345 pages
- Source: Own collection
- Stars: 2 stars out of 5