No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better...

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Book Review: Untold Story by Monica Ali

(A wordy post today, so bear with me.  And there's a question at the end if you make it that far...)
When I decided to do the book diet, I was actually in the middle of reading a book from the library.  (Don't ask me why, when I could start my own, that I decided to go to the library for yet more books.  None of this makes any sense to me either.)

Anyway, I was reading Untold Story by Monica Ali.  I had a vague suspicion from the jacket cover that this might not exactly be life changing stuff...

 Untold Story

But, as the inside fly leaf reminded me, Monica Ali has been named by Granta as one of the twenty best British novelists.  She was short listed for the Man Booker Prize, and for the National Book Critics Circle Award... the list goes on and on.

So I thought to myself, how bad can it be?  It might actually be one of those books that is a bit of a page turner but is well written.  And I don't know about you, but I go through phases where I don't read for awhile - life, work etc eats into the day and I find I've fallen out of the habit.  So this book seemed perfect to get me back into page turning mode.

How wrong I was.

I have just been commenting to Meme Rose that I think of Blogland as a place where, if you can't say something nice, better to maintain an enigmatic silence.  So I considered not writing this review at all, and pretending I hadn't fallen for the Hello magazine in disguise that is this book.  But, what the hell.  You need to know that I'm actually reading if I'm going to stick to this book diet so here goes.

First, the story line:  Princess Diana did not in fact die in a tunnell in Paris but staged her own death and disappeared to live a normal life in mid-town America.  There, she has built a life, made friends, bought a house, has a nice man who adores her, and got herself a dog.  (Please bear in mind I was putting much on Monica Ali's literary talents by thinking she could pull this off.)

Anyway, as if the plot line weren't lame enough, the whole thing read like the publishers had snatched it from the writer's desk in the night long before she was ready to send it out into the world.  I write.  (Not comparing myself to one of the twenty best British novelists here, just saying that I know how crap early drafts are...).  I know that every draft starts off being bad.  The kind of bad that gives you nightmares that you're back in school and someone has got hold of your first draft and is reading it out loud and everyone's laughing kind of bad.  But that's okay, because you haven't a clue who your characters are or how they sound or what they have for breakfast or anything about them when you first start to write about them.  You have no voice for them and that's okay.  For me, writing is the process of finding that voice.

I suspect that Monica Ali still hadn't quite worked out Diana's voice by the time the publishers broke into her house and snaffled it away.  And once they got hold of it, they clearly didn't read it before sending it to press or they would have edited it out of its current state into something worth reading.

It's formulaic - Diana's three closest friends are blonde, brunette and ginger haired, but otherwise seem pretty interchangeable.  The plot is clunky - e.g. there's a false alarm break in early on that you just know is setting up the real thing later.  The ending is all a bit rushed and pat.  But the thing that bothers me most is Diana.  She's largely absent from the conversations that take place with her in the room.  And that silence isn't explained so she comes across as just a dummy in the corner. Sure, there's been lots of research and references to the life that drove her to take the drastic step or disappearing, but I didn't get any sense of an (imaginary) 'real' Diana.

All in all, this was a bit like eating too much ckae with extra sweet butter icing on the top.  You take a sliver and it hurts your teeth and you really know you should throw it out, but after awhile, it's sat there so you take another to remind yourself how bad the first slice was, and before you know it the whole cake is gone and you feel sick that you've eaten it all.

Now for the question.  I am trying to devise a grading system for my book reviews.  I have the highest - 'rush out and buy' and the lowest - 'run away screaming', but I am struggling with the middle.  A good read?  Wait 'til you find it in the library?  A good book for a rainy day?  A rattling good yarn?  What do you think?

And because you've made it this far, I thought you'd like an Etsy treat.

From Moxie Doll
I am now reading The Women's Room, which is a suitably cleansing and worthy antidote to all that cake.



  1. ...what about something like "if you find it in a hotel room" or "if it turns up in Oxfam".

  2. Goodness, hasn't the Diana story been done to death years ago? You'd expect a 'top twenty' writer to come up with something original wouldn't you? What a disappointment for you.

  3. Your review really made me,laugh! And it's great to know not to ever bother with this book!
    What about for middling reviews: "Its one to get from the library- not to buy"?

  4. And I clearly get a D for comprehension- I just saw that you wrote the library recommendation!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. I think you should only reveiw bad books, so that we get a good laugh, except it might send you round the bend! How about 'if you're' stuck for something to do' for the ok ones? Keep up the good work, love Linda x

  6. I like the contrasting book choices. When I was a member of a book club we really trashed nearly all the books we read. Oh the fun we had...

  7. Ooh yeah grading systems can be interesting. How about one that's "Don't buy, borrow from a friend" - actually that's much like borrow from a library, forget I said that.

    I should think before I type.

    And I like MeMe Rose's suggestion of "Buy from charity shop" - because that would be in between - oh my goodness go out and buy it now and borrow from a friend/library.

    I for one am pleased you reviewed this - everyone can't get it right all the time!

  8. I really enjoyed Brick Lane so I'm surprised that she had written drivel since. Could you class it as "bought it at the airport as there was nothing else suitable for reading on the beach" ??! Loving the typewriter embroidery. xx

  9. I have just been catching up with your posts - I can't quite work out why I have missed them, but forgive me do! I loved your review - really interesting. I think one of the problems from an editing point of view is that early books from an unknown will get, let us say, more forcefully edited than later ones. Which is why a novelist's later efforts can get longer and more rambling - because no one is going to want to offend the big name bestseller, and certainly not the lowly copy editor!

    I feel your pain, as they say, on the refurb front, as I am going through the same thing at the moment!

    Pomona x


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