'Untold Story': What If Princess Diana Had Survived?

Originally published on July 19, 2011 5:10 pm

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 on a ball gown 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 toward the end of the book, which I had a great deal of fun writing."

A Novelist's View Of Diana

Ali says her longtime fascination with Princess Diana is what drove her to 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 the reader 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 her family is still living, and then making that family a part of the story. Ali says 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 has 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."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Monica Ali's latest novel follows a world-famous royal who's managed to escape her previous life. In "Untold Story," Monica Ali wonders what if Princess Diana lived.

MONICA ALI: The book is a kind of modern fairy tale. It's a fairytale stood on its head, if you like: An unhappy princess who becomes a more contented Cinderella.

MONTAGNE: Contented to live in a generic middle-class American town called - hint, hint - Kensington. In the novel, Princess Diana had survived that car crash in Paris. Believing she'll go mad or be assassinated, she goes on to fake her own death and so abandons her beloved boys for a chance to start over. With the help of some plastic surgery and darker hair, we find the Princess 10 years later, a divorcee named Lydia.

ALI: For the first time she does have a network of real friends, there's a man in her life, and she's established a fragile kind of peace. And then, what she's lost is her family. And I guess the book is a meditation partly on, you know, what are the important things in life?

MONTAGNE: Well, there is a moment though - as happens throughout the book - just moments where her old life comes back to her. And very early in the book there's a moment where, although she's been wearing jeans for years and years and years, kind of a uniform, at this moment, one of her friends have given her a ball down for whatever use you can put it to you this little town.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Would you read that for us?

ALI: (Reading) 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.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, it's very interesting. As you've just read, she sees herself as a photographer might see her. And by the sort of coincidence, perhaps found only in fairy tales, one of those photographers who chased the Princess for years and years and was the chief tormentor, he shows up in this town of Kensington. And suddenly her secret is not safe anymore.

ALI: Right. It turns into a sort of cat and mouse game between the two of them. There's a thriller element toward the end of the book, which I had a great deal of fun writing.

MONTAGNE: What leads a novelist to fictionalize a real-life story? Why not just stick with a character that you created?

ALI: Well, I always found Diana an extraordinarily and compelling figure. I was 13 when I watched her get married to Charles, and that did seem like the classic fairy tale at the time. And then, you know, like every other British woman of my age, 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 wonder exactly that: What if? What if she hadn't died? What would she have been like in her 40s and beyond?

MONTAGNE: How did you get over the difficulty of trying to create a story that she could actually have pulled off, given how hard it would be for a real Princess Diana to truly disappear?

ALI: She has help, so she doesn't do alone. She also - 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 - basically on the principle that you wouldn't find a princess walking down the streets on her own. Reading stories about her, as well. For instance, going out in dark wig and glasses out in the queue, standing to go and see a band that she wanted to see. So I guess I took my cue from those stories and ramped them up.

MONTAGNE: Although the one difference between this story and, say, the movie "The Queen," one rather large difference is that you base your Princess on Diana who did in fact die a horrible death, leaving behind two young sons. Yet you have a fictional character here in this book thinking about the boys. You know it can strike one as ghoulish.

ALI: My character is fictional. My book is a novel. Lydia is a fictional creation certainly inspired by Diana. I'm a huge fan of Diana. I'd only want to celebrate and not to denigrate her.

MONTAGNE: Your reviews for "Untold Story," so far in Britain where it came out earlier, are mixed. Many of them do believe that's in bad taste to create a character who rises from the dead, who has living family that are a there and they're employed as part of the novel.

ALI: I mean anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows the issues of fame and celebrity, whether you like it or not, are an important part of modern life. And I think to certain members of the literary establishment, it's a kind of crime to write a book that's entertaining and easy to read. I certainly have grappled with this as much complexity and social situations and issues in writing this book, as I did in anything else that I've ever written.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

ALI: Oh, pleasure. Thank you.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.