The Woman Who Fed the Dogs by Kristien Hemmerechts

20th May 2015

he Woman Who Fed the Dogs
Kristien Hemmerechts' fictionalised portrait of 'the most hated woman in Belgium' asks is anyone ever a monster through and through? Or should we allow second chances even after abhorrent acts?

The Woman Who Fed the Dogs is a fictionalisation of the real life case of Michelle Martin, renamed in the novel as Odette, who is the wife of Marc Dutroux. Between 1995 and 1996 Dutroux abducted and raped young girls in Belgium before being caught and sentenced to life in prison. Martin became an accomplice for allowing the final two missing girls to starve to death while her husband served an unrelated police sentence for car theft. A key component of the media attention in the case, which the book is named after, is the fact that Martin fed her husband’s dogs but allowed the girls she knew were in the basement to starve to death.

Kristien Hemmerechts, states in the essay ‘Out of the Cellar’ that she was not trying to sympathise with Martin’s actions, or inactions, but rather to humanise her: ‘I want to understand its ins and outs, which does not imply approval. Of course I don’t approve of what she did or failed to do. Who would? But I think I now understand how it came to pass.’ The very writing of the book is enough to be considered an affront on the memory of her victims, but there is something morbidly intriguing about hearing a version of events told by this woman, who, as the book intones frequently, was repeatedly represented as a monster in the press and often referred to as ‘the most hated woman in Belgium’.

The novel certainly does not portray any sympathy for this woman. Written in a monologue style from her point of view, it puts across its protagonist and the sole voice in the text as an intensely unreliable and, at times, deeply disturbed character. The unflinching depictions of herself dancing naked in a fur hat as her husband makes love to another woman in their bed, or of her and her mother spending an entire day every week compulsively cleaning their house are in stark contrast to the flat tone in which the book is written.

As is the case with the best written of books, it is not what is said, but what is not said that makes the writing so accomplished. As is the case with the best written of books, it is not what is said, but what is not said that makes the writing so accomplished. The protagonist constantly whines about how good of a mother she is, how dedicated she is to her children, yet the descriptions she gives of them are basic and animalistic. Her children are constantly used to highlight how much work Odette herself had to do and how difficult her life was in the time leading up to her imprisonment. Genevieve Lhermitte, a mother who murdered her five young children, is used throughout as the template for a real child murderer, with Odette portraying herself as a victim. This, along with Odette’s constant use of the word ‘Mummy’ provides a sickening undertone to her monologue.

It is the constant refrain of victimhood from Odette which is possibly the reason this book is described in most of the promotional material as ‘disturbing’. Odette clearly believes she is the ultimate victim in the whole case, regularly referring to herself as such and putting her own assumed victimhood above that of the murdered girls and those affected by the crimes: ‘They wouldn’t see that I was a victim, and still am.’ The entire book seems to be a huge explanation of Odette’s innocence, and it is this that enforces the opposite impression, as the reader is invited to experience the selfishness inherent in the character’s actions.

Whatever Hemmerechts’ intentions in writing this book, it does not serve as the humanising of a media-created monster that she seems to have planned. It is instead a rather intense exploration of evil, which only intensifies the reader’s distaste in the crimes and the woman herself. I cannot, in good consciousness, recommend this book as a casual read, nor to anyone with abuse triggers.

Some of the reviews quoted on the book refer to it as a ‘novel’, but this reviewer believes this text is too intense for such a term. As an exploration of true crime and psychology this is a rare example of literary prowess.