Untold Story, By Monica Ali

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The Independent Culture

Say, Diana hadn't really died but had arranged her own exit to go and live in obscurity. What would she have done next? With that conceit, a novelist's kiss, Monica Ali reawakens the complex, intoxicating, beautiful and institutionally betrayed princess, as iconic as Marilyn Monroe. And why not?

Critics who think that Ali should stick within some "multicultural" enclosure betray their own gated and turgid little minds. They want the author to deliver only intensely flavoured takeaway tales about "alien" Bangladeshis. Yet Brick Lane, the book that made her, was a creative leap too for the half-English, middle-class, Oxbridge writer.

So I fully defend Ali's choice of subject and tone too, populist and accessible: a bold departure for a critically acclaimed writer. Diana was, after all, the people's princess, adored around the whole world and by millions of the assorted citizenry of her land.

Sadly, the book largely fails to keep its promise. After faking a drowning and having her face surgically altered, Diana is now Lydia, living alone in "Kensington" (geddit?) in suburban America. She has a dog, a job in a kennel, a lover, gabby female friends with whom she drinks Pinot Grigio around kitchen tables. They talk about life and lurve. Dullsville, but she is kinda OK there and safe with her secrets. Hardly credible.

The writer occasionally breaks through with recognisable grace and lightness. Lydia realises how she is always "spinning fantasies... as empty as the cobwebs on the ceiling". And there are some atmospheric moments, as when "The sky has turned an inglorious dirty purple, and the hail falls with utter abandon, bouncing, colliding, compelling in its unseemliness. It falls and falls" Ali has always created memorable characters. In Untold Story it is Lawrence, the loyal and discreet mandarin who helped her escape, who loves her deeply and pathetically, whom she trusts on good days.

We know him through his own voice, his jottings. Without Lawrence this book would have been an unaccomplished Mills and Boon. Diana writes him feverish letters and you witness her self-absorption, beguiling sexuality and ego that offset the innocence, terrors, frailty and neediness of a woman let down by all she loved. She was both virgin and vamp, objectified and a manipulator, instinctively humane yet sometimes devoid of empathy. We know much about Diana's life, but not her inner self. Ali reaches those depths and then too quickly rushes to the surface to push on with the plot.

If she had worked these contradictions and contemplated modern adulation, what a book this would have been. Commercial potential seems to have taken precedence. Her previous two novels (both vastly better than this) did not produce the excitement of Brick Lane. The timing, too, is perfect for milking the royalist hordes awaiting the nuptials of Kate and William.

Ali flatters the world's biggest market by basing the action in small-town US: a place with none of the tensions of, for example, American Beauty, only folksy folk who use words like "fandango" and say "Quit stalling and get your butt in here". The star of stars, Diana chooses to join their small lives: "She started to straighten up the house. There was no vacuum cleaner but there was a broom and she rolled up the rugs and started with the ceilings. She found a duster and a can of polish under the sink and cleaned the shelves and table, unfolded the chairs and wiped them down... Rufus [ the dog] got in the way and sneezed and sneezed..." Do you really want me to go on?

Lydia's sorrows, fears and longings are always sorted with swimming, hundreds of laps in pools and lakes. The tedium makes you imagine her drowning for the second time, and this time for real. Untold Story, though, is meant to be a soft thriller, not domestic drama. Enter the villain, Grabowski: a brutish Londoner from the paparazzi pack, coarse and ghastly, who pursued the princess in her previous life and whose cock twitches when he sees her again in "Kensington". I won't give away the storyline - but none of this works at any level.

No matter. Untold Story will be a bestseller and a movie will follow. Big money coming; and a big disappointment, too, for Monica Ali's most avid fans.