In 2003, Writer Monica Ali made a literary splash with a debut novel, Brick Lane, about a young immigrant woman who longs for home. Today, Ali is once again attracting attention — this time with a novel about a world-famous royal trying to get as far away from home as possible.
In Untold Story, Ali imagines what might have happened if Princess Diana had survived that 1997 car crash in Paris — and then gone on to fake her own death.
With the help of some plastic surgery, darker hair and a new name — Lydia — Ali's Diana abandons her children for a chance to start over in a Midwestern American town evocatively named Kensington.
Ali tells NPR's Renee Montagne that after a turbulent post-escape period, Lydia easily settles into small-town American life.
"She has a job, a house," Ali says. "For the first time, she [has] a network of real friends. There's a man in her life and she's established a fragile kind of peace."
Ali says the only thing Lydia really misses from her former life is her family.
"What she's lost is her family," she says. "I guess the book is a meditation partly on, 'What are the important things in life?'"
A Paparazzi 'Cat-And-Mouse Game' Continued
Lydia mourns the loss of her family, but there are also times when the less appealing elements of her former life come back to her. In one scene, Lydia tries a ball gown on after years of wearing jeans. Ali reads,
As she stood before the full-length mirror, Lydia shivered. Despite the dark hair, despite the surgeon's knife, despite the wrinkles wrought by the years and a permanent tan, she saw a ghost looking back at her that had long been consigned to the past. Slowly she turned and gazed over her shoulder. The dress scooped low to the waist. The flesh sagged, not much, just a little, beneath the shoulder blades. How horrible that would look in a photograph, where no blemish was ever forgiven, where you were only as strong as your weakest point.
Lydia can still see herself as a photographer might see her, and that says something about the effects of living a life in the spotlight where you're chased around by photographers.
Then, suddenly, one of those very photographers — her chief tormentor, in fact — shows up in Kensington and, just like that, Lydia's secret is in jeopardy.
"It turns into a sort of cat-and-mouse game between the two of them," Ali says. "There's a thriller element towards the end of the book, which I had a great deal of fun writing."
A Novelist's View Of Diana
Ali says her long-time fascination with Princess Diana is what drove her fictionalize the royal's real-life story.
"I was 13 when I watched her get married to Charles and that did seem like the classic fairy tale at the time," she says. "I watched her transformation into this global superstar, into this gorgeous bundle of trouble that she became. And in the years after her death, I sometimes wondered ... 'What if she hadn't died? What would she have been like in her 40s and beyond?'"
So Ali pulled from true stories about Diana's life and worked to make her fictional disappearance credible.
"I remember reading quite a lot about how Diana loved to go out in disguise in London and she'd walk about delighted if nobody recognized her ... for instance, going out in a dark wig and glasses," she says. "So I guess I took my cue from those stories and ramped them up."
The result is a blend of fiction and nonfiction that asks you to accept the image of a fictional Diana thinking about the very real sons she left behind. It can be striking — and even ghoulish — for some; but at its core, Ali says, she's written a novel that was inspired by Diana, not based on her.
"My character is fictional; my book is a novel," she says. "I'm a huge fan of Diana. I'd only want to celebrate her, not to denigrate her."
On The Fame Machine
So far, reviews for Ali's book in England have been mixed. Some take issue with creating a character by raising someone from the dead when their family is still living, and then making that family a part of the story. Ali says that readers can decide for themselves if the book is in bad taste. But she has a different response for those who've criticized her for taking up what they view as the low-brow subject of celebrity.
"To certain members of the literary establishment, it's a kind of crime to write a book that's entertaining and easy to read," she says — but easy reads can also be thoughtful. "I certainly had to grapple with as much complexity and social situations and issues in writing this book as I did in anything else I've ever written."
And, Ali says, just because she's written a book about a famous person doesn't mean it can't deliver a broader message.
"Anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows that issues of fame and celebrity, whether you like it or not, are an important part of modern life."