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.
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