REG GADNEY is a respected artist, thriller-writer and scriptwriter.
Muna, the fourteen-year-old disabled enslaved black orphan, the central character of Minette Walters’ remarkable and very dark new novel, doesn't stand a chance. Spirited into the United Kingdom illegally, she's imprisoned in the cellar of a house somewhere in England.
Her view of the world is simple enough. 'Things happen because they were meant to happen, and nothing she did or didn't do could alter what fate had ordained.' It's a complicated story of victimization for our time about abuse, enslavement and considerable graphic violence: an unflinching parable of mistrust or, you might say, no trust at all. One is reminded of Graham Greene's cautionary lines in The Ministry of Fear: ‘ . . . it is impossible to go through life without trust; that is to be imprisoned in the worst cell of all, oneself.’
Some commentators have said it's a tale of domestic horror rather than the supernatural. Depending upon your belief, the Devil takes over Muna's heart and hands. She's in that worst cell of all: herself. The couple who keep her are repulsive. The slight bit of good news, at least for Muna, is that the couple’s son vanishes. The result is that Muna becomes their daughter. The intimacy of the increasingly bizarre relationships ferments the revenge she inflicts upon the world. The view of the unhelpful and incompetent visiting police investigating the son’s disappearance is discouraging and heartless. The suspense of such stories like this depends upon on the sense that one feels a time bomb is ticking and Minette Walters creates it magisterially. She's said: 'I believe that the human mind is such a complex thing that we can be extraordinarily pleasant while the most terrible things are going on in our heads.' Her skill allows her to convey the terrible, indeed ferocious, darkness of this enclosed and very British world: a hallmark of her work. What is one to make of this ugliness, this hell in England's so-called green and pleasant land?
Fifty-five years ago, the distinguished Observer film reviewer, C. A. Lejeune, walked out of the press screening of Hitchcock’s Psycho. She then wrote of what she called 'one of the most disgusting murders in all screen history. It takes place in a bathroom and involves a great deal of swabbing of the tiles and flushings of the lavatory. It might be described with fairness as plug ugly. Psycho is not a long film but it feels long. Perhaps because the director dawdles over technical effects; perhaps because it is difficult, if not impossible, to care about any of the characters.' The critic then resigned her job. And Psycho remains an acknowledged masterpiece. The Cellar is not a long book. But it is substantial.
In so far as the almost Psycho-like horror of The Cellar is beyond scientific reasoning it is, in some measure, supernatural. Additionally, the childhood and pain of Minette Walters' Muna is reminiscent of Henry James' Maisie. No mean pedigree. Mistrust lies at the centre of the plot. And: 'Childhood,' as Greene told us in Our Man in Havana, is 'the germ of all mistrust. You were cruelly joked upon and then you cruelly joked. You lost the remembrance of pain through inflicting it.' Muna would have understood.
Minette Walters' inflicts it without relying upon the older formulae of the fondly remembered past Queens of Crime respected enough to have even been elevated to the House of Lords. The Cellar is something different. It’s a frightening journey into a world beyond acceptable contemporary morality and respectability. Finely written with great economy, the novel lingers in the mind. Remember that when Psycho was released Hitchcock made it a rule that no one was to be admitted inside the cinema after the film had started. It will profit the reader to read Minette Walters' dark jewel of a book alone and uninterrupted, perhaps by candlelight, having first carefully checked there’s nothing in the cellar or the larder or garden shed that seems, shall we say, a little unusual.