Trigger warning for rape and domestic abuse.
Odette tells us at the beginning of Kristien Hemmerechts’ The Woman Who Fed the Dogs (translated by Paul Vincent) that she is the most hated woman in Belgium, even more than the woman who murdered all five of her children. We don’t know quite what Odette did to land herself in prison, but it has to be bad. Really, really bad. Before we learn what Odette did, we learn everything about how Odette came to be the person who did those things. There’s a tension the runs all the way through The Woman Who Fed the Dogs is how much we believe Odette, and how much we can excuse her in light of what landed her in prison for sixteen years and her husband, M, in prison for the rest of his life.
Odette was probably destined to be the unwitting (possibly unwitting) accomplice to a predator. Her mother was desperately attacked to her, to the point of threatening to harm herself if Odette wanted to go away to camp, sleep over at a friends, or express her sexuality. When Odette meets M, who excites her so much sexually, that it doesn’t take much for her to adjust from her mother’s prickly neediness to M’s more violent, unpredictable, controlling ways. From the outside, both of these relationships are very clearly abusive. Odette’s lawyers and some of the more sympathetic journalists portray here as a weak person, who was manipulated by M. Odette’s version of events belies this, somewhat, because she constantly shows herself to be as fierce a mother as she can be to her three children.
The Woman Who Fed the Dogs confronts the idea that knowing more about a criminal can mean excusing their behavior. Over and over, Odette excuses M’s behavior and her mother’s behavior by expelling why they are the monsters that everyone else can see that they are. But, even before I learned what M and Odette did, I knew that I could never excuse their behavior. M’s actions are so beyond the pale that it’s a marvel to me that Odette still feels the need to try and rationalize his abuse and his crimes. But she needs to rationalize M’s behavior because that rationalizes her behavior. If M’s parents hadn’t been a nightmare, M might have been able to be satisfied with a monogamous relationship. Because M is not and because he has “trained” Odette to always try to get him what he says he wants, Odette aids and abets M’s crimes. There is a chain of logic there. It’s a terrible logic, which a healthier person would never have to work out for themselves. And yet, to a warped personality like Odette’s, it’s baffling that other people can’t understand her.
Odette blames her fatigue, her mental health, her need to care for her children on scant resources, and M’s abuse for everything. And yet, Odette lets slip things that make her less of a victim that she might want us to think. Later in the book, she tells us that she knew what was going on in the cellar of her husband’s house. (This is where the title is explained at last.) She chose not to do something for which she is down being punished because she says she was tired and overwhelmed. But I think that the prosecutors and the journalists who condemn Odette are right: her excuses wear thin when we examine them.
The Woman Who Fed the Dogs is a hard read, even though it’s only briefly graphic. M’s crimes are referred to just enough to let us know what landed the pair of them in prison. Thankfully, Odette doesn’t give us any more. Paul Vincent’s translation perfectly captures her voice and her inconsistencies to give us Hemmerechts’ disturbing meditation on abuse and culpability loud and clear. I enjoyed this book a lot, even though the subject matter is very dark, because it’s one of the best psychological portraits I’ve read in a long time.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 8 Junary 2019.