Horror behind the cellar door;Children's books
Robert Swindells has previously explored the misery of society's outcasts (in Stone Cold, his controversial novel about a homeless boy stalked by a serial killer) and the wilder fringes of charismatic evangelism (in Unbeliever). The subject of his new novel is the despair and conflicting loyalties of a 12-year-old, whose parents' lives are ruled by the Scriptures (but not the bits about charity).
Martha is a daughter of the Righteous, beaten into submission at home and bullied at school because of her homespun clothes, lack of television and general unworldliness. Her relationship with Scott, the streetwise new boy, gives her the strength to challenge her parents about the family secret - namely, that the illegitimate son of Martha's exiled sister has been imprisoned in the cellar for all his six years.
I make no apologies for revealing this, as a novel that will attract readers as young as nine should carry more of a health warning than the word "chilling" on the jacket. Swindells is an accessible writer, the large type will attract older primary children and the early chapters suggest a straightforward tale about bullying, clashes with parents and the growth of trust between friends. None of this prepares the reader for a scenario capable of inducing nightmares in adults.
Perhaps those children who have not yet heard of concentration camps and Romanian orphanages will be less distressed, but I doubt it. The qualified happy ending orchestrated via the Internet does not detract from the blunt handling of the horror behind the cellar door.
Some readers may benefit from Swindells' exploration of Martha's dilemma - she still loves her parents but feels revulsion at their crime and guilt about her own part in it - but only well-adjusted teenagers should be pointed in this book's direction.