It’s been a while since I’ve read Minette Walters whose psychological suspense novels I’ve always enjoyed. This novella is as eerie and chilling as any of her other books.
The protagonist is Muna, a 14-year-old girl who has been held captive for six years. She was illegally taken from an orphanage in West Africa and brought to London by an African immigrant couple, Yetunde and Ebuka Songoli. Locked in a cellar, she has been beaten by Yetunde and raped by Ebuka. She is malnourished and has been kept ignorant, allowed no contact with the world outside the house in which she is basically a slave. When the youngest son of the family goes missing, Muna’s “fortunes changed for the better” because she is brought upstairs to pose as a brain-damaged daughter to avoid police suspicion. As the investigation continues, Muna takes advantage of her improved status to take revenge on her abusive family. She proves to be both more and less damaged than everyone thinks.
This book is really an examination of the effects of abuse. When she starts taking what revenge she can, Muna tells her “parents” that “I am what you’ve made me. . . All I know is what you’ve taught me.” She has never learned empathy since her own pain and suffering have allowed no room for concern for others: “The feelings I have are the ones you’ve taught me. If they aren’t human the fault is yours.” And then there’s an observation: “They had moulded Muna into mirrors of themselves yet they disliked their reflections.”
A weakness is characterization. Muna’s behaviour is motivated and understandable considering her life, but the other members of the Songoli family have no redeeming qualities. They all are repulsive and unsympathetic people, capable of the utmost cruelty. Yetunde in particular becomes a caricature of evil. I wanted some more nuanced characterization.
There is suspense, but it’s created mostly by wondering how Muna will carry out the next step in her plans for revenge and how will she evade detection. There are some plot twists along the way as would be expected. The ending is definitely a surprise and may leave the reader puzzled; it certainly moves the book more into the horror genre. I was interested to learn that “The Cellar has a different ending for its US and Canadian editions because the publishers wanted it to be more redemptive” (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/may/09/crime-writer-minette-walters-interview). I obviously read the non-redemptive version.
Potential readers should be forewarned that the book delves into the dark side of the human psyche. It is a short, quick read, but not always an easy read with its reminders of the pain humans are capable of inflicting on each other.