2011, 345 pages
My off-duty reading life seems to be rather bi-polar at the moment: fluff (The Book of Rachael) followed by depth (The Eye of the Storm) and now back to a bit of fluff again. I really enjoyed Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, and the television adaptation it spawned, so when I saw her new book at the library, I snapped it up. Reading the blurb at the back, I wondered if I should put it straight back onto the New Books shelf for some other reader to enjoy because it didn’t really sound like the sort of the book that I normally read. Sure, I’m happy to catch up on the adventures of the royals as I sneak a peek at the magazines at the check-out, and I’m a sucker for remaindered books with glossy pictures of the royals. But I wasn’t sure about making the investment in time to read a 300 page book exploring WHAT IF Diana didn’t really die but faked her death in order to start a new life in America. I borrowed it anyway. I was interested to see what a talented writer would do with what must be the chick-littiest theme of them all.
Ali doesn’t actually name her character as Princess Di, but you’re expected to make the connection. The story is told in alternating slices. The first slice is a 2007 narrative of a group of friends in small-town America who have welcomed Lydia as a newcomer to their midst. Lydia is English, mysterious and unforthcoming about her background, and on the verge of falling in love with a good local man. Rewind, then, in the second slice, to the 1997 diary of Lawrence, an academic and secret service man who once served as Princess Diana’s private secretary. While he is penning his entries, Lydia (Diana) is writing to him, as her only confidante after faking her own death, leaving her sons to grieve her loss. In the third slice, the 2007 narrative steps back a couple of weeks to the arrival of an ex-paparazzi photographer who unwittingly, and rather implausibly, stumbles onto the biggest scoop of his life when he recognizes the disguised princess.
Does it work? It’s trashy, it’s light, it’s contrived and it’s also rather unputdownable once you stop scoffing and just go with it. If I wanted to intellectualise it, I would say that it explores similar themes to Brick Lane: exile, displacement, identity. But that would be to put too much freight onto a very light vessel. It’s an indulgence all round: Ali probably didn’t need to write it and I certainly didn’t have to read it. But she did, and I did, and I can probably think of worse ways to spend an afternoon.
My rating: a rather abashed 7/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
Read because: I’m a supermarket check-out royal watcher deep down. Obviously not deep enough.