Click here to read reviewer Sandie Kirkland's take on The Cellar.
Minette Walters fashions yet another spellbinding mystery in The Cellar.
Most of the drama takes place behind the walls of the English house of the Songoli family, affluent African immigrants. The family values privacy, the slave they brought with them to London hidden from prying eyes.
She is a convenient object for Yetunde Songoli’s rage and the nighttime violations of her husband, Ebuka. Thirteen-year-old Olubayo views Muna, fourteen, with lust in his heart, awaiting his turn, while the grossly overweight
10-year-old Abiola is his mother’s favorite. All the family’s secrets are in jeopardy on the day Abiola goes missing. Before alerting the police, Ebuka must remove Muna’s filthy mattress and effects from the cellar, a proper garment found to pass the girl off as a slow-witted daughter.
When Inspector Jordan arrives, both Mr. and Mrs. Songoli react suspiciously, wavering between despair and outrage, crying over their younger son but resisting inquiries into recent family activities. To avoid an interview, Muna is passed off as a slow child who speaks only her native tongue. (Ironically, the family is oblivious to the fact that the slave has secretly benefitted from overhearing Abiola’s English lessons with a tutor.) Invisible to the family, Muna learns much by listening behind doors, adept at sliding into corners for anonymity. While the family goes about their daily business, complaining and insulting one another, Muna finds security in her invisibility, avoiding Yetunde’s punishing rod and Ebuka’s unwelcome attacks in the middle of the night.
The Songolis have unwisely uttered many lies while responding to the inspector’s questions about Abiola, blaming one another when they fear exposure. Only Muna experiences relief after the selfish boy’s disappearance, directed to remain upstairs in case the authorities return, freed at least temporarily from the dark cellar and her nightmares. Silently, she practices the foreigner’s language, careful to hide her secret from Yetunda and Ebuka. Since Yetunda Songoli swept Muna from an African orphanage, the girl has suffered terror and abuse at the hands of this family
as their chattel. Brought to England under the guise of daughter, she is never meant to know freedom, surviving her situation by instinct, unschooled and ignored. This sudden release from the cellar is an unexpected boon in a miserable existence.
Though Yetunde has repeatedly tried to beat the demons from her slave, it is the family that is bedeviled after the youngest son disappears. When Ebuka falls down the cellar stairs, the family’s affairs become even more precarious. Yetunde entreats a solicitor to sue for a substantial sum should Ebuka be unable to return to work. Repulsed by the need to care for her wheelchair-bound husband’s needs after he returns from the hospital, Yetunde decides Muna can perform the distasteful tasks: “I am what you made me, Princess. All I know is what you taught me.”
The wheels have come off the Songoli household, the rancor between spouses growing with each new crisis, neither able to resist mutual blame, the emotional chasm between them widening by the day until only hatred is left. The unraveling is told through the eyes of the slave.
Her challenge is to adapt at each new change of circumstances, tasked with finding solutions, to keep the world at bay, a “daughter” in a family whose cruelty and practiced deceits push them to the precipice of disaster. The Cellar is both fascinating and horrifying, Walters at her most creative and insightful, madness unleashed behind the brick façade of a London home.