Kala by Colin Walsh: Secrets and lies in small town Ireland

Cover image for Kala by Colin Walsh Colin Walsh’s Kala was the subject of the kind of prepublication brouhaha that usually puts me off plus it’s a thriller but Walsh is a Stinging Fly contributor and it’s published by one of my favourite publishers which was enough to make me want to read it. Set in an Irish seaside town, Walsh’s novel sees three old schoolfriends reunited just before the remains of one of their group are found, unearthed at a building site fifteen years after her disappearance.

We are younger and thinner than I remember ever feeling. We look so clean. As if we mean no harm. As if we were not harm itself.

Joe’s back in Kinlough for the relaunch of the bar he has an interest in, ostensibly there for a residency. He’s achieved the kind of fame that makes people stop him on the street for a selfie but not happiness. Helen has come home from Canada for her father’s wedding after many years hardly speaking to him, apparently successful as a crusading freelance journalist. Mush has never left, still working in his mother’s café, turning his badly scarred face away from curious looks. Well-practiced at being the new girl, Helen had found herself taken up by Kala and Aoife when she moved to Kinlough. For a year or so, these five along with Aidan were inseparable but there were undercurrents, shifts in loyalty, and when Kala disappeared one night the group drifted apart, each of them damaged in different ways. The discovery of her body sets in train a series of events that reveals who has been controlling the web of corruption and brutality well established in this picturesque small town.

Over the years, I have imagined Kala watching me at such moments. She comes strobing into my life like this whenever she likes, pulling back the curtains of the years between us to whisper in my year, pass comment on how I am doing my hair, who I am doing it for.

I’m a sucker for the friends reunited structure used with such skill here. Switching between Helen, Joe and Mush, Walsh unfolds this story of secrets and lies from each of their perspectives, leading us to a denouement which I’d had an inkling of, but which is nevertheless satisfying after the slow build of suspense, speeding towards its finale. Each of their narratives flashes backwards and forwards, Helen’s in particular vividly evoking the intense intimacy of teenage friendship. Walsh’s writing is as elegant as I’d expected from a Stinging Fly contributor, summoning up a stultifying atmosphere where everyone knows everyone else and yet still secrets are kept out of fear of one family’s brutality. The fallout of Kala’s disappearance has marked them all: from Helen’s decision to absent herself, both emotionally and otherwise, to Mush’s inability to leave Kinlough and begin his adult life. I found it riveting, a proper literary page-turner with a little bit of The Secret History about it.

Atlantic Books: London ‎ 9781838958602 400 pages Hardback

29 thoughts on “Kala by Colin Walsh: Secrets and lies in small town Ireland”

  1. I prefer traditional mysteries over thrillers but the writing as you describe it and the way the dynamic between the group appears to have been captured makes the sound worth looking up.

    1. I’ve used the word thriller because of the level of suspense which is an important narrative driver but for me it was that dynamic between the friends that stood out.

  2. I had to go and look up Stinging Fly as I’d never heard of it. Looks interesting! As does this book. Your review makes it look quite a juicy read with lots to enjoy.

    1. For several years now I’ve noticed that pretty well all the Irish writers I rate are Stinging Fly contributors. My partner gave me a subscription for my birthday.

  3. This sounds a fab read, i think it is challenging to do flashbacks well without it just being a tired old trope, especially for a thriller, but it sounds like this author has done it well. Lovely review, Susan.

    1. It is if you like short stories, and there are several levels of subscription including one option to receive the books they publish as well as the magazine. Thanks, and I hope you do, too.

  4. Oh I’m not sure – I really don’t like ‘whodunits’, but maybe this isn’t that? And nearly everything else you’ve recommended I’ve absolutely loved. Plus I love Stinging Fly and contemporary Irish Writing is on fire so I might have to give it a go…. onto the TBR pile it goes. Thankyou Susan

  5. This one is on my Kindle (courtesy of NetGalley) so I’ll come back to read your review when I’ve finished the book. It seems to have had a big marketing push (which puts me off slightly) because I keep seeing it mentioned on all my social media feeds etc

    1. I hope you enjoy it, Kim. I’m usually sceptical about those lead titles which take up so much space on social media, too, but it was the association with Stinging Fly that swung it for me.

  6. This does sound very good indeed – a compelling premise, interesting characters and a vivid setting. a strong package. I’ve been a bit disappointed with some of the new novels I’ve read this year, but this seems a cut above – and, as you say, something from Stinging Fly is always worth a look.

    1. I was very taken by the way Walsh portrayed the intimacy and intensity of adolescent friendship and its aftermath. Stinging Fly is a useful indicator in blurbs for me.

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