The Cellar

  • By Minette Walters
  • The Mysterious Press
  • 175 pp.
  • Reviewed by Terry Zobeck
  • January 22, 2016

A dark, disturbing tale told very, very well.

One of the more shocking and disturbing revelations of recent years is that the slave trade is alive and thriving throughout the world, especially the enslavement of children and women from impoverished or war-torn countries. Most civilized people today would find it unimaginable that one human being would enslave another for the purposes of free labor or sexual domination. But that it happens is undeniable given such recent cases as Elizabeth Smart and the diabolical Ariel Castro from Cleveland. Each year seems to bring forth another horrific example.

Minette Walters appears to have taken inspiration from these cases in writing her latest novella, The Cellar. I can’t imagine an author more unlikely to take on such a topic as unflinchingly as Walters has done with this book. She burst onto the crime fiction scene in 1992 with The Ice House, which became an international bestseller. She has gone on to produce 16 more books, all of which are realistic crime fiction, usually with a female protagonist. Like The Cellar, her most recent output has been in the form of novellas. But none of these works prepares us for what she has accomplished with this one.

The novella format serves The Cellar well; it is a taut and harrowing exploration of man’s capacity to inflict pain and cruelty in the complete absence of a moral compass. There are no subplots or extraneous characters to distract from this powerful story.

Walters wastes no time in getting into her story. Within the first few pages, we are introduced to Muna, a young African teenage girl who has been fraudulently adopted from an orphanage by the Songoli family. The family is dominated by the mother, Yetunde (called Princess by Muna), who deprives Muna of all outside contact or emotional support as she degrades and beats her on a regular basis. Muna’s room is a bare basement furnished only with a simple mattress upon which she is repeatedly raped by Yetunde’s husband, Ebuka, whom she calls Master. The Songolis have two young boys, Abiola and Olubayo; the adolescent Olubayo is beginning to give Muna the same lustful glances as does his father. Both boys treat Muna with the utter contempt and loathing learned from their parents.

The family moved to Britain five years earlier for Ebuka’s work. The story is told from Muna’s point of view. Since she is not schooled or allowed to know anything of the outside world, we are not told where in Britain she lives or much of anything of her history. She is a Hausa speaker, so we know she is originally from West Africa. Over the course of the book, we learn bits and pieces of her history and the knowledge and abilities she has gained despite the Songolis efforts to keep her ignorant and uneducated.

Then young Abiola goes missing one day; he never arrived at school and no one has seen or heard from him since the day before. The police are reluctantly notified. The Songolis are fearful of the authorities learning they have kept a slave girl for years. Muna is threatened by the Songolis if she suggests to the police that she is anything other than their beloved daughter. Muna willingly goes along with this plan because she has become convinced by the Songolis that the “whites” would treat her far more horribly than they.

Walters tells Muna’s story in unsparing language and with a complete lack of sentimentality. It is a remarkable achievement that starkly illustrates the horrors we are capable of inflicting upon one another and the toll levied by such acts on both the perpetrator and the victim. Muna is far from the brain-damaged girl that the Songolis portray to the outside world. She is a clever and resourceful young woman, but one terribly damaged by her ordeal. The Songolis come to learn these awful truths, much to their regret.

Terry Zobeck is a substance abuse researcher with the federal government. In his off hours he is an avid book and music collector.

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