An 'Untold Story': What If Princess Diana Had Survived? In Untold Story, writer Monica 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.
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'Untold Story': What If Princess Diana Had Survived?

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

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

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

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Princess Diana died on Aug. 31, 1997, in a Paris car crash while trying to avoid paparazzi. Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images hide caption

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Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images

Princess Diana died on Aug. 31, 1997, in a Paris car crash while trying to avoid paparazzi.

Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images

Read A Review Of 'Untold Story'

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.

Untold Story, by Monica Ali
Untold Story
By Monica Ali
Hardcover, 272 pages
List Price: $25

Read An Excerpt

"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.

Monica Ali's first novel, Brick Lane, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003. Liz Emerson hide caption

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Liz Emerson

Monica Ali's first novel, Brick Lane, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003.

Liz Emerson

"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."

Excerpt: 'Untold Story'

Untold Story, by Monica Ali
Untold Story
By Monica Ali
Hardcover, 272 pages
List Price: $25

Some stories are never meant to be told. Some can only be told as fairy tales.

Once upon a time three girlfriends threw a little party for a fourth who had yet to arrive by the time the first bottle of Pinot Grigio had been downed. Walk with me now across the backyard of the neat suburban house, in this street of widely spaced heartlands, past the kid's bike and baseball bat staged just so on the satin green lawn, up to the sweet glow of the kitchen window, and take a look inside. Three women, one dark, one blonde, the third a redhead — all in their prime, those tenuous years when middle age is held carefully at bay. There they are, sitting at the table, innocent of their unreality, oblivious to the story, naively breathing in and out.

"Where is Lydia?" says Amber, the blonde. She is a neat little package. Delicate features, Peter Pan collar dress, French tip manicure. "Where the heck can she be?"

"We holding off on the sandwiches, right?" says Suzie, the dark-haired friend. She didn't have time to get changed before she came out. There is a splash of Bolognese sauce on her T-shirt. She made it in a hurry and left it for the kids and babysitter to eat. "These reduced-calorie Ruffles? Forget it, not going there." She pushes the bowl of chips away.

"Should I call her again?" says Amber. "I left three messages already." She closed up her clothing store an hour early to be sure to get everything ready on time.

The redhead, Tevis, takes a small phallus-shaped crystal out of her pocket and sets it on the table. She says, "I had a premonition this morning."

"You see a doctor about that?" Suzie, in her favorite khaki pants and stained T-shirt, sits like a man, right ankle on left knee. She gives Amber a wink.

"You guys can mock all you want," says Tevis. She has come straight from work. In her pantsuit, with her hair in a tight bun, pursing her lips, she looks close to prim—the opposite of how she would want to be seen.

"We're not mocking," says Amber. "Was it about Lydia?"

"Not specifically," says Tevis in a very Tevis way. She cups her hands above the stone.

"You carry that around with you?" says Suzie. Her hair is aubergine dark, a hint of purple, and has that freshly colored shine. She plucks a carrot out of the refrigerator and peels it directly onto the table that has been laid with the pretty crockery, hand-painted red and pink roses, fine bone china cups and saucers with handles so small they make you crook your little finger, just like a real English high tea. "Don't worry, I'm clearing this up."

"You better," says Amber, but she reaches across and scoops up the peelings herself. If Lydia walks in that second everything has to look right. She feels guilty about packing Serena and Tyler off to friends' houses when they'd wanted to stay and say happy birthday to Lydia. Wouldn't Lydia have preferred to see the children rather than have everything arranged just so? Amber tucks her hair behind her ears and pulls a loose thread from her sleeve. "Please say it wasn't about her."

"Jeez Louise," says Suzie. "She'll be working late. You know how she loves those dogs."

"Why isn't she answering her phone?" says Amber.

"I didn't wrap her present. Think she'll mind?" Suzie snaps off the end of the carrot with her front teeth. The teeth are strong and white but irregular; they strike an attitude.

"I'm not trying to worry anyone," says Tevis. She puts the crystal back in the pocket of her tailored jacket. She is a Realtor and has to look smart. It's not who she is. It's what she does. As she herself has pointed out many times. But this is a town full of skeptics, people who buy into all that bricks-and-mortar-and-white-goods fandango instead of having their chakras cleansed.

"Seriously," says Suzie, "you're not." She loves Tevis. Tevis has no kids so you talked about other stuff. Suzie has four kids and once you'd talked about those and then talked about the other moms' kids, it was time to head home and pack sports gear for the following day. Tevis being childless meant you felt a bit sorry for her, and a bit jealous. Probably the same way she felt about you. She could be dreamy, or she could be intense, or some strange combination of the two. And she was fun to tease.

"Remember what happened last time?" says Tevis.

"Last time what? You had a premonition? Is it about Lydia or not?" Amber, she is pretty sure, knows Lydia better than the others do. She got friendly with her first, nearly three years ago now.

"I don't know," says Tevis. "It's just a bad feeling. I had it this morning, right after I got out of the shower."

"I had a bad feeling in the shower this morning," says Suzie. "I felt like I was going to eat a whole box of Pop-Tarts for breakfast."

"How late is she anyway? God, an hour and a half." Amber looks wistfully at the silver cake forks fanned out near the center of the table. They were nearly black when she found them in the antiques store over on Fairfax, but have cleaned up beautifully.

"And guess what," said Suzie. "I did. The whole freakin' box."

Tevis takes off her jacket. "The air always gets like this before a thunderstorm."

"What?" says Suzie. "It's a beautiful evening. You're not in Chicago anymore."

"I'm just saying," says Tevis. She fixes Suzie a stare.

"Come on, Tevis, don't try to creep us out." The cucumber sandwiches are beginning to curl at the edges. It is kind of dumb, Amber knows it, to have English high tea at seven in the evening. More like eight thirty now.

"Yeah, let's just hear it, girl, the last time you had a premonition..." Suzie begins at her usual rat-a-tat pace, but suddenly tails off.

"So you do remember," says Tevis. She turns to Amber. "Please try not to be alarmed. But last time I had a premonition was the day Jolinda's little boy ran out in the street and got hit by the school bus."

"And you saw that? You saw that ahead of time?"

Tevis hesitates a moment, then scrupulously shakes her head. "No. It was more like a general premonition."

"And that was — what? — two years ago? How many you had since then?" Amber, her anxiety rising, glances at the Dundee cake, enthroned on a glass stand as the table's centerpiece. It is mud brown and weighs a ton. Lydia mentioned it one time, a childhood favorite, and Amber found a recipe on the Internet.

"None," says Tevis, "until today."

"You never get a bad feeling in the mornings?" says Suzie. "Man, I get them, like, every day."

Amber gets up and starts washing the three dirty wineglasses. She has to do something and it's all she can think of except, of course, calling Lydia again. But when Lydia strides through the door, that swing in her hips, that giggle in her voice, Amber doesn't want to feel too foolish. "Damn it, I'm calling again," she says, drying her hands.

"There's no reason why it should be to do with Lydia," says Tevis, but the more she says it, the more certain she feels that it is. Only a couple of days ago, Lydia came over and asked for the tarot cards, something she had always refused before. Tevis laid the cards out on the mermaid mosaic table but then Rufus wagged his tail and knocked two cards to the floor. Lydia picked them up and said, "Let's not do this," and shuffled all the cards back into the deck. Tevis explained that it wouldn't matter, that to deal the cards again would not diminish their power. "I know," Lydia said, "but I've changed my mind. Rufus changed it for me. He's very wise, you know." She laughed, and though her laugh contained, as usual, a peal of silver bells, it also struck another note. Lydia was intuitive, she knew things, she sensed them, and she had backed away from the cards.

"Absolutely no reason," Tevis repeats, and Suzie says, "It's probably nothing at all," which sounds like words of comfort and makes the three of them uneasy that such comfort should be required.

Amber tosses her cell phone onto a plate. Lydia's phone has gone to voice mail again and what's the point in leaving yet another message? "Maybe she took Rufus on a long walk, lost track of time, forgot to take her phone." She knows how lame it sounds.

"She could've got the days mixed," says Suzie, without conviction.

"Suzie, it's her birthday. How could she get the days mixed? Anyway she called this morning and said see you at seven. There's no mix-up, she's just...late." Lydia had sounded distracted, it was true. But, thinks Amber, she has frequently seemed distracted lately.

"What the..." says Suzie.

"I told you," says Tevis. "Hail."

"What the..." says Suzie again, and the rest of her sentence is lost in the din.

"Come on," shouts Amber, racing for the front door. "If she arrives right now we'll never hear the bell."

They stand outside on the front deck and watch the hail drum off Mrs. Gillolt's roof, snare sideways off the hood of Amber's Highlander, rattle in and out of the aluminum bucket by the garage. The sky has turned an inglorious dirty purple, and the hail falls with utter abandon, bouncing, colliding, rolling, compelling in its unseemliness. It falls and it falls. The hail is not large, only dense, pouring down like white rice from the torn seam above. "Oh my God," screams Amber. "Look at it," Suzie screams back. Tevis walks down the steps and plants herself on the lawn, arms held wide, head tilted back to the sky. "Is she saying a prayer?" yells Suzie, and Amber, despite the tension, or because of it, starts to laugh.

She is laughing still when a car pulls off the road; the headlights seem to sweep the hail, lift it in a thick white cloud above the black asphalt driveway, and spray it toward the house. Tevis lets her arms drop and runs toward the car, her Realtor's cream silk blouse sticking to her skinny back. The others run down too. It must be Lydia, although the car is nothing but a dark shape behind the lights.

When Esther climbs out of the front seat, clutching a present to her chest, they embrace her in an awkward circle of compensation that does little to conceal their disappointment.

Back in the kitchen, Amber sets another place at the table. Esther brushes hail from her shoulders, unpins her bun, and shakes a few hailstones out of her long gray hair. "Forgot I was coming, didn't you?" she says, her tone somewhere between sage and mischievous.

"No!" says Amber. "Well, yes."

"That's what happens to women," says Esther. "We reach an age where we get forgotten about." She doesn't sound remotely aggrieved.

Amber, through her cloud of embarrassment and anxiety, experiences a pang for what lies ahead, fears, in fact, that it has already begun, at her age, a divorcee the rest of her life. She gathers herself to the moment. "The thing is, we've all been a bit worried about Lydia. Has she been working late? She's not answering her phone."

"Lydia took the day off," says Esther. "You mean she's not been here?"

Nobody answers, as Esther looks from one to the next.

"We should drive over to the house," says Suzie.

"Wait until the hail stops," says Tevis.

"We can't just sit here," says Amber.

They sit and look at each other, waiting for someone to take charge.

Excerpted from Untold Story by Monica Ali. Copyright 2011 by Monica Ali. Excerpted by permission of Scribner.

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