The Cellar – A Suburban House Is the Height of Horror

Muna’s fortunes changed for the better on the day that Mr. and Mrs. Songoli’s younger son failed to come home from school.

This is the opening line of British suspense novelist Minette Walter’s latest entry The Cellar. The Songoli’s are a family of African immigrants with a terrible secret; they’ve been keeping a young girl, Muna, captive in their cellar. An orphan who Mrs. Yetunde Songoli falsely claimed as her niece so she could steal the child from an orphanage and turn into her personal slave, Muna has spent the past six years being abused, emotionally, physically, and sexually. But tragedy for the rest of the family in the form of their younger son’s disappearance is great news for Muna. To keep up appearances in front of the suspicious white female police officers, Muna is let out of the cellar, given her own room and a bed, proper clothes, and passed off as the Songoli’s ‘daughter.’

Once the police are gone of course, things go back to the way they were with Muna addressing her captors as “Master” and “Princess.”  The Songoli’s hopes of maintaining the status quo depend on their certainty that Muna cannot speak English, cannot read or write, and is completely cowed by them. They are horribly wrong on all three counts. Muna is in fact an extraordinarily gifted young girl who believes herself to be possessed by the Devil himself. And her plans are more terrifying than the Songoli’s worst nightmares.

The brilliance of The Cellar is that it completely subverts the “innocent angelic” victim trope. This is a Cinderella figure who fights back -and does so in a startlingly violent fashion. It’s less a revenge yarn than a cautionary tale about the long term psychological effects of extreme abuse. Walters understands that childhood trauma and suffering far from being ennobling actually deaden the soul.  Cruelty breeds cruelty. Muna’s actions are shocking and brutal, but as she points out she’s nothing more than what the Songoli’s have made her to be.  At 175 pages, this short but deeply unsettling novel can be easily devoured in one setting; but the questions it raises in one’s head will linger on long afterword.

The Cellar
Minette Walter

Top photo: Bigstock

About Winnefred Ann Frolik (155 Articles)
Winnefred Ann Frolik (Winnie for short) was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She completed the International Baccleareate program at Schenley High School and then attended the University of Pittsburgh where she completed a double major in English Literature and Creative Writing. After graduation she spent a number of years working in the non-profit sector and it was during that phase in her life she moved to D.C.  Winnie co-wrote a book on women in the U.S. Senate with Billy Herzig.  She enrolled in a baking program in culinary school and worked in food services for a while. She currently works in personal services while writing for Woman Around Town and doing other freelance writing projects including feeble personal attempts at fiction. Her brother is a reporter in Dayton, Ohio so clearly there are strong writing genes in the family.  She lives in Pittsburgh, PA, with two demanding cats.