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