Muna is 14 years old. They think. She's been brought to Britain illegally, used by the Songoli family who keep her in the cellar where the 'father' Ebuka abuses her when she isn't working. One day, the Songoli's younger son, Abiola, disappears, and Muna's world changes. The presence of police forces the Songolis to bring her out in the open, where they discover there is far more to Muna than they might have thought.
It's presented as a horror story, but it is horror that is created by a deft combination of psychological thriller and fairy tale. You begin with the obvious comparison with Cinderella, see elements of Henry James or Arthur Machen, and wind up with something much darker, that builds with a intriguing kind of logic as Muna adapts to the strange world outside.
Much of the story is borrowed from the news, and familiar headlines come to mind as you read it. But the potential mundanity in that is overshadowed by the construction of the narrative, from Muna's point of view, and using Muna's language. She has learned English secretly, by osmosis, and she has comprehended only parts of the world through the actions of those holding her prisoner. It makes for a classic fairy-tale narrative, from a child's-eye point of view. Her 'brothers' are Roald Dahl-type figures, cartoonish exaggerations, but the massive presence of her 'mother' Yetunde, with her jewellery, bonbons and domination of her husband, is a villainous creation of chilling perfection, as if a Disney film had taken a much darker turn.
One by one her tormentors disappear, and the tale picks up speed when Muna deals with the outside world, authorities and curious neighbours, while coping with the now-crippled Ebuka. And it is here that the story has to choose its finish, between horror and thriller. My instinct would have been for the latter, bleaker and more chilling. But in the best traditions of fairy tales, Walters finds a moral in her resolution, and a chilling moral, and story it is.
The Cellar by Minette Walters
Hammer £12.99 9780099594642
Note: this review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)