I love discovering a new publisher or imprint so when a pile of books arrived earlier this year from World Editions I was delighted. I find when I meet a new imprint I tend to, rightly or wrongly, judge them by what the first book that I read by them is like. Well, if every book from World Editions is going to be an introduction to a new (to me) voice from around the world bringing with them an unusual, and in this case quite confronting, topic or view point with them then I am going to be a huge fan. The Woman Who Fed The Dogs is a book that bothered me from start to finish, but not one I resented for such bothering. Let me explain…
The most hated woman in Belgium. That’s what they call me. Much more hated than that woman who murdered her five children. Most people have already forgotten her. Not me. Meanwhile other mothers have murdered their children, though not as resolutely as her, not as unerringly. She is and will remain the queen among murderess-mothers, the gold medallist, the Medea of out age.
I don’t deserve a medal. I deserve hatred, scorn, poison. People send me letters in which they describe in great detail what they would do to me if they had the chance.
As The Woman Who Fed The Dogs opens we are thrown into the world of Odette who instantly starts to tell us her current predicament. As she goes on we get glimpses of what it is that she has been an accomplice to. Something that has left her one of the most vilified women in her country, for even if she didn’t do the actual wicked deeds, how on earth could someone know their partner was doing horrendous things and not tell anyone about it unless they were in some way a part of it? This is what Kristien Hemmerechts goes on to look at as we follow Odette’s unravelling in her cell, something which makes for very confronting reading.
There is a certain additional edge to the novel when you know that it is based on a true case. Michelle Martin was the wife of Marc Dutroux who, between 1995 and 1996, abducted and raped young girls in Belgium before finally being caught and sent to prison. Martin herself became an accomplice for allowing the final two missing girls to starve to death while her husband served an unrelated police sentence. What Hemmerechts does is try to understand and explore what on earth would make a woman cover up for someone so wicked to the point where they too cause a death even if not physically. Why would anyone do that?
I’ve been in prison for sixteen years because I didn’t save them although I could have saved them. So they say. They weren’t there, but they know for sure I could have saved those girls.
If it were all so simple.
Whilst I have to admit some of The Woman Who Fed The Dogs is quite graphic, it is more sexual than violent and you never feel like there is a voyeuristic element to what you are reading. You couldn’t read about a book with a subject like this and not expect there to be some disturbing parts to. That said the victims aren’t really featured, and what happened to them hinted at, which I thought showed a huge amount of respect for them and what the book is really about for Hemmerechts. It seemed to me that Hemmerechts makes this book very much about the psychological and sociopathic aspects of a case like this, the cause and the consequence, not the actual crimes themselves.
It is in that context that Hemmerechts does something very clever with Odette. Never at any point do you empathise with her. Whenever you are in danger of swaying that way Hemmerechts will show you another side of Odette’s life, she will be discussing how little self worth she has and then suddenly some out with a defensive or venomous comment which makes you see there is more going on than meets the eye. It is a fine balancing act to portray someone as a victim and an accomplice; for clearly M (which is all we know him as) was abusive, yet at the same time shows that Odette had a mind of her own when she chose. I thought Hemmerechts did this very well. It raises the old questions of what can turn a good person bad, or if we all have a dormant inner evil that can be sparked be it chemically or through abuse. It also raises the questions of when victims become bullies and how can someone who feels powerless exert some kind of control no matter what consequences that could have.
‘You would have met me,’ said M. ‘I would have found you.’ And he said I should be grateful to him, that I owed everything to him. ‘Without me you’re nothing.’
‘Kiss me. Please.’
Had I begged for a kiss? Yes, I had begged for a kiss.
‘You have to earn a kiss, Odette.’
My only real qualm with the book was that occasionally I got really confused. You see as Odette tells her story she often interrupts herself or deviates by focusing on women who she feels have done worse or just as cruel things as it seems people believe she. This tends to be at moments where she seems to find it it hard to discuss her crimes, often at the start and then less and less as we read on. Whilst I understood both the device and the messages meant by Hemmerechts doing it, sometimes I couldn’t work out if she was talking about herself, talking about another prisoner she meets, famous female criminals she reads about or indeed her own mother or M’s. Instead of highlighting a point I was sometimes confused instead. However all it took was to flick back a few pages, sometimes not the nicest of tasks with a topic like this, to work it all out. A small niggle yet a niggle all the same which meant occasionally the book jarred.
That said I can’t say that it ruined, or lessened the impact, of the novel as a whole as I think The Woman Who Fed The Dogs is a very brave novel and one which raises some really awkward yet thought provoking questions. It is not a book that forgives or excuses by any stretch of the imagination, more one that (as I said before) tries to explore and understand a horrendous situation of a desperate and dependent woman. It asks the reader to try and leave their preconceptions to one side and look into a completely different life and situation so abhorrent to our own. I respect any book that does it as successfully as this one, which whilst disturbing never makes the reader feel accepting or complicit.