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The Cellar by Minette Walters

The Cellar: A Novel - Minette Walters

The Songoli’s youngest son Abiola has failed to come home from school and Scotland Yard is investigating. That means that 14 year old Muna is treated like one of the family for the time being, instead of the slave she has been all these years. She now has her own bed room (instead of a mattress in the cellar), her own clothes (instead of a cast off tunic), and ribbons in her hair. The Songolis still treat her atrociously in private, but Muna is more clever than they know, and bright enough to be careful about revealing her smarts.

This novella is pretty dark, containing a few twists, and definitely has a gripping tenseness to it. All the characters are flawed individuals and there are a few moments when some positive attributes of one or another character show through. Muna’s mother died when she was toddler and she spent some time at an orphanage before Yetunde Songoli, posing as her aunt, adopted her. Once Muna was brought home, she was made a servant for the family, doing the bulk of the cleaning and perhaps some of the cooking.

Minette Walters paints a bleak life for Muna. She’s beaten regularly by Yetunde and her two sons and Abuka (Yetunde’s husband) regularly rapes her. Life sucks for her. Muna is told daily that she’s stupid and once the police get involved in Abiola’s disappearance, they are told that Muna has brain damage. While the Songolis use their native language (Hausa) at home, Muna has been quietly learning English by listening to the TV programs the Songolis watch at night. She quickly grasps that the Songolis are in a precarious position.

While I really enjoyed the tension of the story, there were several small questions that went unanswered. For instance,  Muna doesn’t know her numbers and yet it’s unclear how much of the cooking she does. If you do cooking with modern ovens and microwaves, then understanding numbers (to some extent) is part of that. Also, it’s never really clear why Yetunde decided the Songolis needed a slave to serve the household.

This is definitely Muna’s tale. I felt a mix of strong feelings towards her and that added to my enjoyment of the story. However, I do have to say that she did have incredible luck in that everything really goes her way once she starts to realize that she has some power over her life. Still, I couldn’t help but be on her side for most of the book.

Over all, it’s a chilling tale along the lines of ‘you get what you give’ for most of the characters. Muna is well written and fascinating because she didn’t always react the way I expected her to. While I had a few little outstanding questions by the end of the tale, it did hold my attention the entire way through.

I received a copy at no cost from the publisher (via LibraryThing) in exchange for an honest review.

The Narration: I know Justine Eyre’s narrating work from Gena Showalter’s books (the Alien Huntress series which is a mix of scifi and erotica) so I wasn’t sure if she would be a good fit for this book. I worried for nothing. Eyre was very good, giving a serious (and sometimes creepy) performance of the tale. I’m not very familiar with the Hausa accent, but I can say that Eyre kept it consistent throughout the book.