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Estimable author has some fun with tale of Princess Di on the run

Monica Ali shows her ingenuity rather than her genius -- in her latest novel, "Untold Story."

It is a startling but brilliant move, and the book is bound to fly off summer book shelves even though "Untold Story" is in no way comparable to Ali's splendid debut novel "Brick Lane."

"Untold Story" is, instead, a plain old potboiler with an intriguing plot which asks us to believe that Princess Diana didn't die in a tragic accident in 1997 but staged her own death -- "to escape the gilded cage"-- and is now living, incognito, in the U. S. (where she considers self-reinvention "as American as applesauce").

"The curtain has fallen," mulls Dr. Lawrence Arthur Seymour Standing, the only other individual who knows of Diana's deception. "The soap opera has been axed. And so here starts the rest of her life."

"Lawrence," as the Princess of Wales calls her former private secretary, is the book's anchor -- an exceedingly likable English historian whose "dogged devotion" to Diana has caused him not only to help her relinquish a life with the eyes of the world upon her but also to "conceal a moment of history."

"A people can own an emblem far better than a flesh and blood human being," he rationalizes early on, concluding later, "I did right. I think I did."

In the interest of full disclosure, this reviewer is an indiscriminate "royalty junkie" (or "Windsor watcher") of long-standing and is therefore inclined to like any book that would bring back the glorious and troubled Diana, Princess of Wales, suspension of disbelief unnecessary.

But what a risk for Ali whose post-"Brick Lane" offerings -- "Alentejo Blue" and "In the Kitchen" -- were but well-written disappointments. To confound matters, "Untold Story" begins inauspiciously with a tedious small-town "tea klatch" featuring four women (one blond, one a red head, one dark and one gray-haired).

Diana -- currently Lydia Snaresbrook -- is the quartet's friend. She now has black hair, a nose job and altered lips plus brown contacts which, after nearly 10 years without detection, she seldom wears. She works at a dog refuge, has a boyfriend and likes to swim.

She is, in a word, ordinary. But, of course, the Princess of Wales could never remain ordinary -- and Ali soon picks up the pace, bringing veteran British paparazzo John Grabowski to town.

Like "Lydia" before him, Grabowski was looking for a quiet place to stay and was amused by the name "Kensington" for a small community in North Carolina. At this point, "Untold Story" becomes a thriller and, save for several pages of rambling thoughts "Lydia" bounces off an absent Lawrence, is riveting to the end.

Lawrence keeps it so, penning a diary from afar that chronicles the unraveling of Diana's life at Kensington Palace; her "death," purportedly by drowning; her plastic surgeries in Brazil and finally, her tranquil existence in the tiny town of Kensington (where the scant bit her friends know of her past is that her husband was "a man of some influence," and she does not wish to be found).

It is Lawrence who speaks of "that smile that she has, pure sex, and completely chaste," and Lawrence who remembers her, at Kensington Palace, "teetering on the abyss -- The screaming, the hurling of heirlooms, the bingeing and vomiting, the cutting of her arms and legs -- (and) how she fed the monster that came close to destroying her." Lawrence also speculates that her disappearance was not at all at odds with her paranoia that the powers-that-be wanted her gone.

Had his days not been numbered (by a brain tumor) Lawrence would never have acquiesced to Diana's "little plan" to disappear from the yacht of her then-boyfriend, off the coast of Brazil: "The endless media speculation was of sharks."

Ali uses Lawrence to speculate on Diana's state of mind, her motivation -- and identity. For how could Diana, of all mothers, leave William and Harry, her sons?

"They let me know when I can have the boys and when I can't," she tells Lawrence in the book. "It's as if they're not my children. They're properties of the crown."

Lawrence is of two minds about this: "To leave them, I firmly believe, was her greatest act of selflessness," he writes. "But she is a complex woman. Perhaps it was also her greatest act of narcissism. No more swings in the barometer of public approval. She has ascended the firmament now, her worth beyond measuring; beyond dispute she is loved."

Lawrence presumably dies a short time before a planned pilgrimage to see Diana/Lydia in America -- leaving her on her own when "Grabber" Grabowski rolls into Kensington seeking a quiet place to complete his 10-year remembrance of the princess he covered so assiduously in the years before her "untimely" demise.

Whether the real Diana was as complex as the fictional Lawrence deems her, Ali's Diana is complicated indeed, conflicted always over the abandonment and loss of her boys and, in the process, clearly growing up. She neither basks in limelight, nor seems to want to, and she lives frugally while working hard and forging real friendships that stop short only of her secret.

Ali allows her a sense of humor, and some of her old fight -- the two producing a wonderful scene, with Grabowski, in which Diana figuratively gets back at paparazzi everywhere.

Thus, in one sense, "Untold Story" is formula made-for-women's TV. In another sense, it transcends the genre simply because of the talent of the (also complex) Ali. Considered one of Britain's best young authors, she seems here to have taken an easy turn at writing a destined-to-be popular book.

The fact that its publication in the United States comes upon the heels of the William and Kate nuptials only sweetens her decision.

Serious readers can hope Ali is merely buying herself time before giving the world another book of the stature of "Brick Lane." In the meantime, "Untold Story" will more than do -- and who's to say, anyway, that Ali can't have some fun with us?

Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.


Untold Story

By Monica Ali


259 pages, $25