- - Sunday, December 11, 2011

UNTOLD STORY
By Monica Ali
Scribner, $25, 259 pages

One thing you can count on with British novelist Monica Ali is that she will not give you the same kind of thing over and over again. Her second novel, “In the Kitchen,” a portrait of life in and around a large central London hotel, was startlingly different from her first, “Brick Lane,” a study of a Bangladeshi immigrant neighborhood in the citys east end.

With her third, Ms. Ali again demonstrates her amazing range with a virtuoso “what if” evocation of another fate for Diana, Princess of Wales than the sudden tragedy which played out so dramatically in Paris 14 years ago.

The abrupt ending to a life which had captured so much of the world’s attention for so long was a uniquely upsetting volcanic eruption of shock and grief the world over. Amidst the sorrow at a life cut short was an abiding wish that such a thing should not have happened, so Ms. Alis expedition into alternative history is not only understandable on her part but will resonate with a good slice of the public. Who does not hunger for another ending to the extraordinary trajectory that was Diana’s life?

“Untold Story” certainly gives us that - and more. With great skill and using the formidable imagination we have admired in those previous novels, Ms. Ali gives us a fully-realized, flesh and blood Diana, with just about everything we thought we knew about her and enough on top of that to make this princess more real than any we have encountered before.

The slyness and guile which more than make up for her intellectual deficiencies play out to brilliant effect. Her odd blend of shyness and ready charm are marvelously evoked. Even on ground well trodden, Ms. Ali doesn’t give us the expected. Instead of the well-worn “Im as thick as a plank” used to deprecate her lack of intelligence, we get the more subtle “The only prize I ever won at school was for best guinea pig.”

We see the agonizing wound of her husband’s cruel coldness and dislike toward her and the still greater pain as she realizes the burden that she - and her estrangement from him and his family - are placing on the sons she loves so much. This is crucial to the readers acceptance of Diana’s faking her death later that August of 1997, after escaping serious injury in the Paris tunnel, a journey that will take her to an anonymous life working at an animal shelter in a small American town.

It is only fair to urge the reader not to be put off by the opening of the novel, which plunges right into Lydia’s ( for this is what Diana is calling herself) life in Kensington - get the joke? - Ohio. For sadly, Ms. Ali’s usually formidable imagination has let her down here, or else she is going too far in making a point of the flatness and humdrum aspect of life in the Midwest.

Whatever her motivation, the result is a dull, dense marsh to wade through before the novel catches fire as we get to see the real Diana and learn just how, and with whose help, she achieved her anonymity. Skillfully told through letters and diaries, her motivation and the determination and strength with which she accomplished her plan reveal themselves.

Almost equally absorbing is the plot involving a photographer who, accidentally in town, guesses Lydia’s true identity. (Although Diana has long been presumed dead, because she was believed to have been eaten by a shark during an early morning swim from a lover’s yacht off the coast of Brazil no body was ever found. There were always rumors of her survival and therefore a photographic story potentially the greatest of coups.)

How the cornered princess deals with this situation reveals just how cunning she could be, and the novel’s denouement manages to achieve a real surprise for the reader while still adhering to stringent standards of plausibility and consistency of characterization. All this is sufficiently exciting and absorbing that it doesn’t really matter when we have to tread water with more dull scenes of small town America.

It is an interesting fictive experiment to base a novel so clearly on a historical character - a photograph of Diana, taken from an angle at the back, adorns the cover - that there is no simple revelation early on: its already there as the premise. Ms. Ali’s achievement is to create such an intricate and believable alternative reality that, by the end, it rivals what actually happened for true pathos.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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