Casus Belli – acts of war. A fitting title for a surprisingly dark novel about the psychological damage of conditional love. From the outside, the Douhet family seems normal. Good-looking intellectual father, capable and put-together mother, one lovely daughter and a charming son. But beneath the surface of this attractive family lies some very savage undercurrents.Claire Douhet, the mother, wields the weapons in this war. She is the only character given her own voice and through her self-righteous monologues with God, she reveals an unfeeling and envious interior life. Her daughter Virginie bears the brunt of Claire’s bitterness and she retaliates, first pathetically and after, destructively. The day her younger brother Christophe is born, five year-old Virginie adopts a limp she will keep for the rest of her life. She refuses her real name and selects Camille (a name with the same first letter as both of her parents and her younger brother), a request her mother refuses to honor. Stubbornly, Virginie keeps both, constructing a self-damaging alter-ego. And finally, when her brother is two or three months old, she throws him in the garbage can.

This act remains between Virginie and the mother as a sort of unexploded bomb. Claire does not reprimand her daughter. Instead she refuses to acknowledge what has happened, wrapping the moment up in a form of suffocating horror that alters Virginie’s self-perception forever. Virginie, too young to understand what she has done, is never given the opportunity to apologize and this stunted guilt sets up house in her psyche. Bragance commits a lovely passage to this idea of withheld forgiveness.

Dans les rivières, là-bas, au fond du monde, dans les mines profondes, des hommes cherchent l’or. Ils cherchent sous un soleil qui tue, le corps éreinté, courbé, poisseux d’une sueur chaude qui leur brûle les yeux, des années durant ils cherchent comme des diables fourbus, comme des demi-dieux impécunieux, ils s’acharnent à cette quête. Mais comment trouver l’or où il se trouve?

Dans sa maison, ici, bordée à droite comme à gauche de fusains bien taillés, précédée d’une pelouse bien tondue, Virginie cherche le pardon. S’il le faut, elle y passera sa vie, elle s’acharnera elle aussi, elle se l’est promise. Comme les chercheurs d’or de là-bas, si loin. Mais comment trouver le pardon quand l’offensée s’obstine à nier l’offense ? Comment obtenir le pardon quand la victime, trop innocente, ignore qu’il y a eu crime.

Pourtant, il faut de l’or pour survivre, l’or d’un regard, d’un geste, d’une parole, il faut le pardon, absolument.

[In the far away rivers at the end of the world, in the deepest mines, men hunt for treasure. They hunt beneath a killing sun, with wasted and bent bodies, dripping with a sticky sweat that stings their eyes. For years and years, they hunt like worn out devils, penniless demi-gods, relentless in their quest. But how to find this hidden treasure?

From within her house, just here, with its border of well-trimmed hedges and its perfectly mowed lawn, Virginie is hunting for forgiveness. If necessary, she will keep looking for the rest of her life, she’ll never give up, she’s promised herself. Like those very treasure seekers so far away. But how to find forgiveness when the injured party keeps denying the injury? How to be forgiven when the still too innocent victim doesn’t even know there was a crime?

Yet one needs treasure to survive, the treasure of a look, a gesture, a word, one needs forgiveness, for certain.]

The years pass, all tainted by the destructive ghost of this event. Virginie, unloved and so unable to love, marries, divorces, marries again, divorces again. She refuses to have children, denying herself a certain pleasure in the sheer desire to thwart her mother. Christophe marries but his mother can’t stand the woman he’s selected as she is too similar to his sister. It’s very ugly, the way Claire’s jealousy deforms what should be the most natural of relationships. Like Virginie’s body remains misshapen, so does the Douhet family dynamic. Made all the more tragic by the complicit silence of the father and the nearly blind cheerfulness of Christophe.

Casus Belli is not all doom and gloom, there are moments of redemption within the story even if they come too late to avoid the final disastrous event. This slim little book is literally exploding with thorny questions and uncomfortable propositions – not all of which get answered or fully addressed before its conclusion. A small disappointment in an otherwise rewarding read.