Kala (Colin Walsh) – Book Review

A missing girl who tore apart a group of friends two decades ago. A grisly discovery in the modern day. An uncovering of the truth that devastates a small Irish community.

Irish writer extraordinaire Colin Walsh unveils his first novel proper, Kala, a gripping, emotive page-turner that combines domestic suspense, childhood nostalgia, and a chilling, decades-old mystery about the disappearance of a teenage girl and the friends she left behind, in the sleepy, insular town of Kinlough, on Ireland’s west coast.

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From the get-go, Kala is far less focused on being a twisty thriller – although it does deliver some neat twists and plot developments – than it is on exploring the overlapping, intertwining dynamics of teenage friends in the early 2000s and their modern-day counterparts. At the heart of this maelstrom is Kala herself, a tragic ingenue from the wrong side of the tracks, who is the star around which her friends all orbit, and whose disappearance as a teen has left a black hole only a few of them have been able to escape.

The characters who populate Kinlough are well-drawn and insightful, with three of the remaining friendship group taking prominence. Mush, the scarred barista is trapped in Kinlough by what happened as a teenager; Joe, who is only ever spoken through second-person narrative, reflecting his lack of grounded, interior self, has become a globe-trotting, chart-topping DJ back in town on a victory lap; and Helen has become a brittle freelance reporter in Canada, back in town for a family wedding, driven by a need for justice but hindered by her guilt about those she left behind, namely her gloriously humane and down-to-earth sister Theresa. These three have their own reasons for hiding from the pain that Kala’s disappearance wrought them, but each is explicably drawn back to one another, just as a grisly discovery reawakens the case.

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Walsh is unafraid to deliver brutal blows to the reader – beloved characters are brutally attacked, and there are at least two separate sequences of nauseating animal cruelty – which adds to the sinister atmosphere hanging over Kinlough. The flashbacks are suitably sepia-toned in the early days of the twenty-first century, with fantasies about Dawson’s Creek-era Joshua Jackson, or sharing earbuds during melancholic walks, and even though the initial premise of the book suggests a more rote mystery, Walsh’s focus is always through the lens of character first, seeking to burrow beneath the skin of his players and find the wounds, unhealed and aching, to finally bring them to the surface.

Ultimately those looking to Kala for a propulsive mystery may find themselves let down but those desiring an intense, beautifully-written character study framed around a disappearance, will find plenty of enjoy in Walsh’s debut novel. Much like the eponymous character herself, Kala is a dark, beguiling mystery, and one that promises a rewarding time for any reader who chooses to spend time with it.

Kala is out now from Atlantic Books.

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