Because The Cellar is published by Hammer, you’d probably expect to find some kind of supernatural monster lurking under the stairs. But no. Instead, there’s a different kind of evil going on in this book.
14-year-old Muna is a slave, stolen from an African orphanage and moved into the basement of a north London home. The family upstairs mistreats her in every way possible, from starving her to denying her access to education; the father even sexually abuses her. It’s a horrifying situation, and when Muna spots an opportunity to get her revenge, things get even worse.
The Cellar is a short book, a novella rather than a novel, and it’s written in the kind of simple prose Muna, with her limited grasp of English, would be able to follow. As a result, it’s a quick read, but you wouldn’t want to spend any more time with it – it’s a deeply uncomfortable read. Every page brings a new atrocity, a new form of torture enacted either on or by Muna.
There’s no respite, mainly because there’s no-one to empathise with. None of the characters is likeable, and there’s no possible happy ending for any of them. It’s clear from the start that everything will end horribly, but when it does, it’s tragic rather than satisfying. Revenge, it turns out, isn’t the same thing as justice.
What are we, as readers, meant to get out of this parade of hideousness? It’s hardly a moral lesson, unless you weren’t clear on whether or not it’s wrong to kidnap and enslave children. These kinds of crimes do happen, but there’s no real catharsis on offer here. So maybe it’s just a meditation on how abuse begets abuse, and some sins can’t be forgiven. Not one to pick up for a light read on the beach, then.
In the end, there is simply very little to like, it’s hard to connect with the characters and the plot, especially with those under thought details.