Skip to main content

The Cellar


The Cellar

THE CELLAR is a shocker. It’s one of those books that builds incrementally, page by page, getting worse and worse in the best possible ways before coming to a conclusion that defies classifications of “happy” or “sad.” It’s a book that’s squirm-inducing in several spots.

Author Minette Walters has spun a tale that creates a bit of a conundrum: It’s so uncomfortable to read in spots that it’s difficult to recommend it wholeheartedly for the same reasons that it should be read. The things that give rise to the events described here occur. We know they do, though, more often than not, we turn away from them when confronted by them in a newspaper article that one quits reading after the third paragraph, or in an investigative report televised on the nether regions of a cable channel. There is no turning away from THE CELLAR once you start it, and that is chief among its many strengths.

"THE CELLAR is a powerful work. It is a short but multi-layered novel packed full to the brim of its pages with quiet horror and realism."

A 14-year-old girl named Muna was taken under false pretenses at the age of eight from an orphanage in West Africa by the Songoli family. The Songolis --- a mother, father and two sons --- subsequently emigrated to London, where they have kept Muna in slavery, confining her to a dark basement except to do their bidding and suffer their abuse, which is continuous. This state of affairs continues for six years. Things change dramatically for Muna when the younger of the Songoli boys goes missing one morning. The parents, of course, report the absence, but find that they must promote Muna from the cellar and clean her up, passing her off as a mentally challenged daughter to the Scotland Yard officials who show up at the Songoli home to investigate their son’s disappearance.

Muna, as we come to learn, is anything but mentally challenged. She is a very intelligent, angry and dangerous girl. Driven by revenge and a demanding voice that only she can hear, she slowly, incrementally and inexorably begins to turn her world around, even as the world outside of the walls of the Songoli home --- a world she knows next to nothing about --- threatens to bring her down.

THE CELLAR is a powerful work. It is a short but multi-layered novel packed full to the brim of its pages with quiet horror and realism. Walters uses the book as an incidental vehicle to deal with ongoing issues such as racism and immigration from a standpoint that is often ignored but nevertheless demands to be acknowledged in our modern discourse. It additionally asks another uncomfortable question: What really goes on behind the closed doors of the homes of our friends and neighbors? Do we have any idea? Would we believe it if we did?

Read THE CELLAR and wonder. And leave some time afterward. If you are unfamiliar with Walters’ other work, you will want to acquaint yourself sooner rather than later.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on February 12, 2016

The Cellar
by Minette Walters