Book Review - Kala

A dark coming-of-age novel, this is an impressive debut from Irish author Colin Walsh, winner of several awards for his short stories and named in 2019 the Hennessy new Irish writer of the year. It’s set in 2018 in Kinlough, on the west coast of Ireland, where three friends recall the summer they spent together 15 years earlier. Helen, Joe and Mush belonged to a gang of six teenagers with beautiful, intrepid Kala Lanann at their heart. Then Kala disappeared.

Using narration by three distinct voices, Walsh brilliantly conveys the cruelty, self-absorption and vulnerability of teenagers, their shifting allegiances and betrayals, as well as their love for one another. As we follow the two timelines, we learn of the town’s dark underbelly: the misogyny, the lucrative but brutal world of dog fighting and a cohort of violent men determined to safeguard their interests, whatever the cost. 

Joe, Kala’s former boyfriend, is now a world-famous rock star – his narcissism neatly conveyed by his use of the second-person. Helen works as a freelance journalist in Canada, and Mush helps out his mother in her Kinlough caff. Mush and Helen reunite for a family wedding, Joe is there for a solo residency at a local venue. The friends get more than they bargained for when Kala’s remains are found in the woods, and Mush’s teenage twin cousins, Marie and Donna, vanish.

Walsh’s characterisation is superb, and he has a vivid turn of phrase. Of Joe’s first sighting of Kala, he writes: “The thick storm of dark hair, the lazy shadow at her mouth. Her eyebrows – pure Hollywood.” On Helen’s awkwardness at school: “The chats flowed around the classroom along well-established arteries. I was an obstacle around which they moved.”

Walsh packs a lot into 400 pages and Kala is confidently plotted – we are drip-fed information, clues and red herrings. And while the ending is melodramatic, this assured novel heralds an exciting new voice.

Originally published by The Observer