As is often the case, although very close as children, four siblings have drifted apart into adult life. All they seem to have in common is a tendency to be troubled, even neurotic, perhaps owing to past repressed events which are gradually revealed.
In the prologue, they are brought together physically by the final visit to the childhood home which their widowed mother has decided to sell. This inevitably triggers nostalgic memories, but tension is aroused by the mother’s wish to give some of their inheritance in advance to her two younger and less successful children, the twins Elias and Rena.
The “four walls” of the title seem like a metaphor for the four adult siblings who need to decide whether they want to rebuild their relationships to prevent their family group from crumbling, once it has lost the “anchor” of the family home. To do this, they have to understand their relationships in the first place, which is hard in view of all the unspoken resentments, real or imagined guilt of the past.
A reunion with their mother two years later at the Greek holiday home purchased by elder son Saul creates a situation in which the four can reflect on the past, perhaps make a few confessions and ultimately begin to rebond. The author uses the device of taking a different view point in each chapter: that of Saul, the “intellectual”, successful but troubled former journalist; then Hélène, the internationally known creator of perfumes who has perhaps erected a false screen of not wanting either children or a man in her life; Elias, who has not achieved his potential as a pianist and is separated from his wife, and Rena who has suffered a crippling accident, leaving her dependent on a crutch, perhaps another metaphor for emotional clinging to others.
Is perception of the past changed by the passage of time, or does each individual see it in his or her own way? Memories take root differently, with hate linking us as much as love. Do only children, like their parents, make a fantasy out of having a large family, thus creating a heavy burden for their own brood of children? People worry how their children will turn out, what they can do to avoid mistakes in their upbringing, all the while finding it hard to see themselves as parents. Such are the observations produced by the characters’ continual navel-gazing.
There are some strong dialogues (sometimes hard to keep track of who is speaking), leading me to wonder if this might have worked better as a film which could also have captured visually the ambience of the childhood house, or Saul’s Greek retreat. Critics have noted the subtlety and “non-dits”, unspoken words, of this novella, so perhaps I missed some of the revelations. For me, these proved too fragmented, the details sometimes hard to follow, except when delivered in a melodramatic outburst. One could argue that the real drama lies in the reader’s freedom to speculate over what may really lie behind all the obscure hints and allusions. For instance, do incestuous feelings lie at the root of a character’s malaise? Can it be hard for the siblings in general really to love anyone outside the charmed circle of their childhood bonds, now broken without being fully satisfied by anyone else?
The French author may have been inspired by her Georgian heritage to create a family with parents who were originally Greek immigrants, one of Jewish extraction, but it was unclear to me how being immigrants influenced the essential exploration of family ties, except that feeling a little rootless may have encouraged the mother to foster excessively tight bonds between her children.
A potentially promising novella left me rather bored and disappointed with its underdeveloped characters, thin plot, and somewhat tame conclusion.