The Cellar: A Novel

The Cellar: A Novel

by Minette Walters


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From the internationally bestselling crime writer Minette Walters, The Cellar is a harrowing, compulsively readable novel about a family of African immigrants, the Songolis, and the dark secret they keep hidden in the depths of their seemingly respectable British house.

On the day Mr. and Mrs. Songoli’s younger son fails to come home from school, fourteen-year-old Muna’s fortunes change for the better. Until then, her bedroom was a windowless cellar, her activities confined to cooking and cleaning. Over the years, she had grown used to being abused by the Songoli family—to being a slave. As Scotland Yard swarms the Songoli home following the boy’s disappearance, Muna is given a real bedroom, real clothing, and treated, at least nominally, as a daughter. But her world remains confined. She is not allowed to go outside, doesn’t know how to read or write, and cannot speak English. At least that’s what the Songolis believe. Before long, it becomes clear that young Muna is far cleverer—and her plans far more terrifying—than the Songolis, or anyone else, could ever imagine.

Editorial Reviews

Independent (UK)

A compulsive (and gruesome) read.

Daily Mail (UK)

Reads like a particularly grim Grimm’s Fairy Tale, with an all-too-credible contemporary setting.... Gratifyingly menacing.

The Guardian

This compact, well-told and extraordinarily atmospheric story packs more punch than many much longer books.

Val McDermid

Contemporary crime writing at its absolute peak.

From the Publisher

Praise for The Cellar:

A Deadly Pleasures Best Novel of the Year

“When you read about sadists who have brutalized their housekeepers or au pairs, you try not to think about what life was like for those poor slaveys. But Minette Walters lets her imagination run free in The Cellar. An intimate and upsetting story about Ebuka and Yetunde Songoli, a rich immigrant couple from an unnamed West African nation who claimed 8-year-old Muna from an orphanage and took her to England . . . [Walters] writes with the subtle cruelty and pitiless insights of [Ruth Rendell’s] alter ego, Barbara Vine.”—Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review

“This short work reads like a recipe for evil and may well induce a nightmare or two . . . Sly pacing and a detached narrative voice give this horror story exceptional punch.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

The Cellar is a shocker . . . A powerful work . . . A multi-layered novel packed full to the brim of its pages with quiet horror and realism . . . If you are unfamiliar with Walters’ other work, you will want to acquaint yourself sooner rather than later.”—Bookreporter

“Haunting . . . Walters nails a perfect blend of psychological suspense and social commentary that resonates long after the book is over.”—Publishers Weekly

“Those who enjoy their fairy tales fractured, in the style of Angela Carter and Roald Dahl, will revel in this decidedly dark and droll retelling of the story of a kick-ass Cinderella by veteran writer Walters.”—Library Journal

“A harrowing thriller . . . My blood ran cold, and I couldn’t put it down. Walters’ use of language is especially good . . . I highly recommend it.”—Killer Nashville

“A dark, disturbing tale told very, very well . . . A taut and harrowing exploration of man’s capacity to inflict pain and cruelty in the complete absence of a moral compass. There are no subplots or extraneous characters to distract from this powerful story . . . Walters tells Muna’s story in unsparing language . . . It is a remarkable achievement that starkly illustrates the horrors we are capable of inflicting upon one another.”—Washington Independent Review of Books

"A compulsive (and gruesome) read."—Independent (UK)

"Creepy . . . a domestic horror about punishment and retribution."—Sydney Morning Herald

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802126283
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 01/10/2017
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 405,310
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt


Muna's fortunes changed for the better on the day that Mr and Mrs Songoli's younger son failed to come home from school. Not immediately. Immediately, she felt great fear as Yetunde Songoli wailed and screamed and beat her with a rod because the ten-year-old wasn't in his room. It was Mr Songoli who put a stop to the punishment. Be sensible, he ordered his wife. The police will ask questions if they see bruises on her arms.

Shortly afterwards, Yetunde moved Muna to a room with a bed and a window. She pulled a brightly coloured dress over the girl's head and bound matching ribbons into her hair, hissing at her all the while for being a witch and a demon. Muna must have brought a curse on them. Why else had Abiola not come home?

Left alone, Muna stared at her reflection in the mirror on the wall. Was this what Mr Songoli had meant by being 'sensible'? To make Muna look pretty? It was very confusing. After a long time, she heard the sound of cars drawing up outside, the doorbell ringing and unknown voices speaking in the hall. She would have retreated to a darkened corner to squat on her haunches if Yetunde hadn't ordered her to sit on the bed. It was uncomfortable – her back began to hurt with the strain of staying upright – but she didn't move. Immobility had become a friend over the years. It allowed her to go unnoticed.

She was beginning to hope she'd been forgotten until she heard footsteps on the stairs. She recognised Yetunde Songoli's heavy tread but not the lighter one that followed behind. She stared impassively at the door, watching it open to reveal Yetunde's great, bloated body and a slim white woman, dressed in a shirt and trousers. Muna would have taken her for a man if her voice, when she spoke, hadn't been soft.

Yetunde lowered herself to the bed and put an affectionate arm around Muna's waist. She was so heavy that the mattress dipped beneath her weight and Muna could do nothing but lean against her. She was too small and thin to resist the woman's pull. Don't show fear, Yetunde warned in Hausa. Smile when this policewoman smiles at you, and speak in answer to the questions I ask you. It won't matter what you say. She's white English and doesn't understand Hausa.

Smile. Muna did her best to ape the soft curve of the white's lips but it was a long time since she'd done anything so unnatural. Speak. She opened her mouth and moved her tongue but nothing came out. She was too afraid to voice aloud what she practised in whispers to herself each night. Yetunde would know for certain she had demons if she said something in English.

'How old is she?' the white asked.

Yetunde stroked Muna's hand. 'Fourteen. She's my first-born but her brain was damaged at birth and she finds it hard to learn.' Tears dripped down the bloated cheeks. 'Was this not tragedy enough? Must my precious Abiola be another?'

'There's no reason to think the worst yet, Mrs Songoli. It's not unusual for ten-year-old boys to truant from time to time. I expect he's at a friend's house.'

'He's never truanted before. The school should have called my husband at work when they didn't get me. We pay them enough. It's irresponsible to leave a message on an answerphone.'

The white crouched down to put herself on the same level as Muna. 'You say you've been out all day, but what about your daughter? Where was she?'

'Here. We have permission to teach her at home. A Hausa speaker comes to tutor her each morning.' Yetunde's bejewelled fingers moved from caressing Muna's hand to stroking her cheek. 'Children can be so cruel. My husband wouldn't want her teased for her disability.'

'Does she have any English?'

'None. She struggles even to speak Hausa.'

'Why didn't her tutor answer the phone when the school rang?'

'It's not her job. She wouldn't take a call intended for someone else.' Yetunde pressed a tissue to her eyes. 'It's so rare for me to go out. Any other day I would have been here.'

'You said the first you knew that something was wrong was when you returned at six o'clock and listened to your messages.' The crouching white examined Muna's face. 'Yet it must have worried your daughter that Abiola didn't come home at his usual time. Will you ask her why she didn't tell you as soon as you opened the door?'

Yetunde pinched Muna's waist. She's talking about Abiola. Look at me and pretend concern. Say something.

Muna turned her head and whispered the only words she was permitted to use. Yes, Princess. No, Princess. Is there something I can do for you, Princess?

Yetunde dabbed at her eyes again. 'She says she thought he was with our older son, Olubayo. He takes his little brother to the park sometimes.' A great sigh issued from her chest. 'I should have been here. So much time has been wasted.'

Muna wondered if the white would believe such a lie, and kept her gaze lowered for fear the blue eyes would read in hers that Yetunde was being deceitful. Muna's life was less painful for being thought too simple to learn any language but Hausa.

'You realise we need to search the house and garden, Mrs Songoli?' said the white, rising to her feet. 'It's standard procedure when a child goes missing. Abiola may have hidden himself away rather than go to school. We'll make it as easy on you as we can but I suggest you take your daughter downstairs so that your family can sit together in one room.'

If Muna had known how to see humour in a situation, she might have laughed to hear Yetunde order Olubayo to treat her as his sister. But humour and laughter were as alien to her as smiling and speaking. Instead she thought of the kicks and slaps Olubayo would give her once the whites had left. He was big for a thirteen-year-old, and Muna feared for herself when he changed from boy to man. So many times recently she'd looked up from her work to find him staring at her and rubbing his groin against the door frame.

From beneath lowered lids, she watched the expressions on Mr and Mrs Songoli's faces. How anxious they were, she thought, but was it Abiola's disappearance that was worrying them or having police in their house? As Yetunde had brought her downstairs, Muna had seen that the door to the cellar was open. A bulb now glowed in the overhead light at the top of the steps, banishing the darkness she'd lived in and showing her that her mattress and small bag of possessions had been removed from the stone floor at the bottom.

She thought how harmless her prison looked, brightly lit and with nothing to show that anyone had slept there, and it gave her a small hope that whites were kinder than blacks. Why would the Songolis hide the truth about her otherwise? Just once, Muna shifted her glance fractionally to look at the woman in trousers. She was asking Olubayo about Abiola's friends, and Muna felt a shock of fear to find the blue eyes staring at her and not at the boy. They seemed clever and wise and Muna trembled to think this person knew she understood what was being said.

Would she guess that Muna had listened to the message being left on the answerphone and had known all day that Abiola had not arrived at his school?

The searchers returned, shaking their heads and saying there was no sign of the child although they'd found a mobile telephone on charge in his room. Yetunde identified it as Abiola's and began to wail again because her son hadn't had it with him. She rocked to and fro issuing high ululations from her mouth, while her husband strode angrily about the carpet, cursing the day he'd brought his family to this godforsaken country. He bunched his fists and thrust his blood-infused face into the white woman's, demanding to know what the police were doing.

Muna would have cowered before such ferocity, but not the white. She took Ebuka calmly by the arm and returned him to his chair to weep for his beloved son. She seemed to have great power over men. Where Yetunde stamped and raged to get what she wanted, the white gave quiet orders that were obeyed. She used the telephone to request a child-protection officer to examine Abiola's computer and smartphone. She asked Yetunde and Ebuka for photographs and videos of the boy. Bags containing his clothes, toothbrush and comb were taken away. Sandwiches and pizzas were brought in.

All the while she asked questions of the family. Had Abiola been unhappy recently? Was he bullied? Did he shut himself in his room, spending long hours on the internet? Was he a boy of secrets? How much did his parents know about his friends? Did he run with a gang? Was he taken to school each morning or did he make his own way? Who had seen him off that morning?

The picture Yetunde and Ebuka painted in their answers was not one that Muna recognised. They described Abiola as a popular boy who walked to class with his brother each morning, keen to begin his lessons. They made no mention that he wet his bed most nights and slapped and kicked his mother if she asked him to do something he didn't like. He had to be bribed with sugary foods to go to school, fed to him in titbits from Yetunde's fingers. It was why mother and son were as fat and bloated as each other. For every sticky sweet Yetunde gave Abiola, she took one herself.

This trouble had come upon them, Muna thought, because Mr Songoli had cancelled the car that had driven the boys to class each morning and brought them back each afternoon. He was angered at how spoilt they'd become and told them they must learn to want their education as strongly as the bush children in Africa. Now Olubayo told terrible lies about the happenings that morning, swearing hand on heart that he had walked Abiola to the school gates. Yet Muna knew this couldn't be true. Olubayo had so much hatred for Abiola, and Abiola so much hatred for him, that they never did anything together.

Perhaps the white didn't believe the story either for she asked Yetunde if she'd seen the boys leave. And of course Yetunde said she had. She would never admit to her husband that she'd been sitting before her mirror, massaging expensive bleaching cream into her skin. Such wasteful extravagance annoyed Ebuka.

'I'd like to ask your daughter the same question, Mrs Songoli. Will you put it to her?'

Yetunde raised her voice. Look up, Muna. This woman is asking if you saw Olubayo and Abiola leave this morning. Nod your head and say something. She expects you to speak.

Muna did as she was asked. Yes, Princess. No, Princess. Is there something I can do for you, Princess? But even as she whispered in Hausa she longed for the courage to say the words she practised to herself each night.

'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 come from.'


The only adults Muna could recall from her childhood were nuns and priests with shiny white skin. The years had blurred their features and muddled their names but she thought she'd been happy during the time she spent with them. She found it easier to remember the beaming black faces of the children. There was more to recognise in people she resembled. She dreamed sometimes of playing games in the dust of a sun-drenched schoolyard, full of colour and brightness, but where that was and why she had been there, she didn't know.

The life she lived now had begun the day Yetunde came to claim her. The woman, tall and magnificently dressed in a bright blue kaba with a matching gele on her head and gold necklaces around her neck, had documents to prove her entitlement to the child. With a happy laugh, she had claimed Muna as her niece, hugging and kissing her and telling her how pretty she was, and Muna had smiled into the woman's eyes as if she knew her. No priest would question the love he saw between them, particularly when Yetunde Songoli produced a legal writ giving her guardianship of her dead sister's eight-year-old daughter.

Had Muna been suspicious? No. Her only feeling had been awe to discover she belonged to someone as rich and beautiful as Aunt Yetunde. If an explanation had been offered for why she had ever been placed in the care of nuns or why Yetunde Songoli had thought to look for her there, she didn't remember. Her strongest recollection of the day was skipping through the schoolyard gates at her aunt's side without a backward glance at the place she'd called home.

Now, all these years later – five, six, seven? – Muna wished her memories of it were stronger. Reason told her it must have been an orphanage and that her surname, if she'd ever had one, wasn't known to the priest. Or perhaps he was as wicked as Yetunde Songoli? Perhaps he posed as a priest to make money from selling motherless girls to well-dressed women with documents? Muna didn't want to believe that. She longed to think white people had more kindness than black ones, but in her heart she knew it wasn't true. She had seen the cold and unfriendly way they passed each other in the street outside this house where she lived, not caring to exchange a greeting or even smile.

Her worst terrors came during the night. She could believe in herself in daylight, but alone in the pitch-blackness of the cellar she doubted her very existence. However hard she strained to see the walls and the floor, even her hand before her face, there was only darkness. And the darkness was more alive than she was.

Only pain told her she was real. When she touched the scars between her thighs where part of her had been cut away by a witch, her eyes shed tears of anguish. It will make you pure, the woman had said as Yetunde held her down and the knife sliced through those parts that were private to little Muna.

The word meant nothing to Muna for she couldn't see that the agony she suffered each time Ebuka ripped new tears in her misshapen hole made her pure. She didn't know why he did it and shook with dread each time the cellar door opened and his torch shone down the steps. She never saw his face. He became as invisible as she was once the light was quenched and he clamped his hand across her mouth to stifle her whimpers. She could only tell it was Ebuka from his smell and his pig-like grunts.

Perhaps purity came from the searing pain of passing water or the fear she felt of the mysterious blood that had begun to leak from her once a month. Now Ebuka only visited her when she bled as if what leaked from him could be cleansed by what leaked from Muna.

Yetunde asked her often if she had begun to bleed between her legs but she always said no. She felt it was a secret she should keep though she didn't know why. She had little knowledge of anything except cooking and cleaning, and she'd learned those skills through being beaten with a rod when she made a mistake. There was so much that was unexplained in her life. Who she was. Where she had come from. How old she was. What place she was in and how she had got there.

She remembered climbing into a silver car outside the schoolyard gates and being driven through streets teeming with people and markets, and she remembered Aunt Yetunde smiling as she popped a coconut sweet between her lips. After that, Muna's memories were confused and random. She could recall the witch with the knife because the pain had caused her to wake and cry out, but most of the time she thought she'd been asleep.

Certain images kept recurring in her mind. Yetunde pushing coconut sweets between her lips. The feel of a man's beard against her cheek as he carried her in his arms through a large hall. The sound of Yetunde saying the child was his daughter. The roar of engines. People sitting in rows. A sense of lifting from the ground. Being carried through another hall. Rain on her face. Waking here in the darkness of this cellar and never tasting coconut again.

Muna thought the bearded man must have been Ebuka, but she had no explanation for why he had once pretended to be her father. She guessed the other memories were about a journey. The place she had left had been full of sunshine and colour but the only brightness here was in the greenness of the grass and the leaves on the trees. She wished she had made a mark each time they turned to golden brown for it meant another year had passed, but her child's mind had been too intent on counting each hour of the day to think about the future.

Through the bedroom windows upstairs, she could see over the high brick wall that surrounded the house. Away in the distance were tall buildings that reached towards the sky, but close too were houses like this one, hidden behind walls and obscured by trees. She saw more through the metal gates at the end of the short driveway when she was dusting the downstairs rooms than she ever saw upstairs. People walking. People in cars. It's how she knew she was in a world of whites. She came to recognise those who passed the gates each day but they never glanced in Muna's direction.

If they had she'd have jumped behind the curtains out of fear. She wasn't allowed to raise her eyes to anyone. She whispered words at night to remind herself she had a voice, but her dread of being heard was terrible. Yetunde had said Muna had demons inside her when she begged to go back to the schoolyard she knew, and had poured burning oil on the child's bare foot to teach her that demons spoke words of ingratitude.


Excerpted from "The Cellar"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Minette Walters.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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