- - Thursday, January 7, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE CELLAR

By Minette Walters

Grove Atlantic, $24, 192 pages

Kidnapped from a London orphanage by a sadistic couple who want to use her as a slave, eight-year-old Muna descends into a version of hell. She is locked in a cellar, beaten unconscious with a steel rod by her alleged mother and raped by her foster father.

Then things get worse. Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of Minette Walters’ horror story of a savagely abused child is Muna’s revenge. The broken, beaten child finds her sole comfort in the dank dark of her prison cellar because there she becomes convinced there is someone who can protect her forever. That is the Devil, a creature of dark laughter who makes Muna his protege, assuring her she is “his pretty one, his good one” and showing her how to inflict on the Songolis the pain she suffered at their hands.

Gradually Muna becomes what her mentor in the cellar has in mind — the epitome of evil. To the point she can tell her captors, “I am what you made me” as she pounds them with a hammer and snips their fingers off with a secateurs. Ms. Walters usually walks on the sinister side in her mysteries, but this time she has moved into the most gruesome shadows. She indulges in the darkest of irony when the police arrive at the home of the Songolis who have reported that their son is missing. They are forced to remove Muna from the cellar to a bedroom to play the role of their backward daughter who can’t talk. It is true that since she has never been outside the house or given any education. She speaks only because she has learned to listen to her tormentors and watches television. She can talk, but she doesn’t and her tormentors are alarmed to discover that she can do more than scream in pain.

The police find no trace of the missing boy and learn nothing from Muna who is still too terrified to betray her torturers. But with coaching from the cellar, she is biding her time. She knows where potential weapons are hidden and can’t wait to use them. Yet she still can’t summon the courage to utter the words, “Please help me. My name is Muna. Mr. and Mrs. Songoli stole me when I was eight years old. I would like to go home, but I don’t know who my parents are or where I came from.” What she listens to is the whispering in the darkness of the cellar. “His words were always encouraging. Muna was his chosen one. His beautiful one. He would prove to her how powerful he was.” Muna had longed for the Devil to strike dead Ebuka, her fake father, each time the door at the top of the stairs opened, or whip the rod from Yetunde’s hand but she saw now that he preferred to inflict a more lingering pain.

When Ebuka again tries to rape her, he is picked up as by a giant hand and flung down the stairs where he lies in a state of paralysis. And Muna remembers where to find the hammer that she slams into Yetunde’s body until she too lies in battered heap in the cellar. It is the cellar that becomes the tomb for the Songolis and their sons and Muna who becomes their nemesis, and she constantly hears the Devil’s laughter. It seems almost a concession that Ms. Walters introduces the possibility of rescue for Muna. Neighbors who have watched the thin frightened face of the little girl at the window begin to pay more attention, and eventually Muna seeks their help to make telephone calls and pay bills. Now the cellar and the secret safe within it are stacked with dead bodies that Muna has dismembered, with the Devil’s aid. As she kills Yetunde, she “felt a marvelous thrill to hear the Devil’s laugh rise from the caverns of the earth and see his hand reach out of the darkness to drag Yetunde down.”

Muna enjoys visiting the cellar occasionally to inspect the remains of the shriveled corpses. And she is also learning to read and write and discovers documents on her background. She is not entirely unhappy. Nobody is cruel to her any more and she still revels in the Devil’s cackling in the cellar. Perhaps the most chilling commentary on Muna’s future comes in a letter written to the police by her worried neighbor. It is ludicrous that the neighbor’s husband has warned his wife that he fears Muna may regress if she is taken into care.

“He urges me to let her decide for herself how and when she wants justice,” writes the neighbor. That indeed is the final question about Muna. The answer to the mystery of her life — and the identity of the Devil — lies in the cellar.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.


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