Kala: A Novel

  • By Colin Walsh
  • Doubleday
  • 416 pp.
  • Reviewed by Chris Rutledge
  • August 29, 2023

An Irish town harbors endless secrets in this sturdy, uneven debut.

Kala: A Novel

Colin Walsh’s debut novel, Kala, is many things. It’s a coming-of-age story, a snapshot of a small Irish town, and, above all, a murder mystery. There are secrets kept and tragedies concealed. While we’ve read this before in other stories, Walsh, a celebrated young Irish author who clearly knows the world he writes about, approaches it with fresh eyes.

We have in Kala a group of friends. There is Helen, the serious one, who runs off to Canada to explore “big topics” as a freelance journalist (albeit one who’s barely treading water in her career). Mush is determined not to allow his scars, received during the central tragedy of the novel, to define him. Joe flees home to become a rock star of some renown. And, of course, there is the titular Kala, who, as a teen, uncovers the town’s secrets and pays for it with her life. (There are two other friends with calamities of their own, Aoife and Aidan, but they are mere ciphers.)

Like in most small-town novels, the main characters’ families harbor secrets, too. Some relatives have died mysteriously. Others have gone missing, potential victims of unseen sinister forces. Still others appear to be upright citizens but hide a menacing side.

Also as in such novels, the town itself — Kinlough, in this case — is a character. In many contemporary books set in Ireland, it feels like it’s perpetually 1955, but Walsh does a fine job of updating his setting for the 21st century. The same nostalgic insularity exists — the sexual behavior of girls and women is heavily policed, and young people are kept in line — but the Kinlough of the early aughts has a coffeeshop and an economy driven by the dollars of vacationers and urban refugees.

The narrative spans dual, intertwined time periods. The first is 2003, during which the protagonists are 15 and living the lives of 15-year-olds: riding bikes, exploring their environs, and learning how to love. It’s amid all this that they discover the darkness pulsing beneath Kinlough’s peaceful exterior. The second timeline takes place in 2018, when our main cast is grown.

Alas, Kala would have been stronger if Walsh hadn’t spent nearly its entire first half on character development and worldbuilding before getting to the meat. Also, the criminal activity the kids uncover is needlessly complex. It may have been more effective for our teens to have stumbled across, say, a moonshiner rather than the spidery, complicated enterprise they find, one involving a “secret underground economy.” At a certain point, it starts to feel like intrigue itself is the town’s primary industry.

The sometimes implausible comings and goings of various characters presents another stumbling block. Friends and relations tend to show up less in an organic way than in service to specific plot points. This includes appearances by the aforementioned Aoife and Aidan, who could’ve played more of a role in the drama. Instead, they’re unnecessary additions.

One thing that does work well, however, is the transition of certain characters from allies to foes and back again. In Kinlough, like everywhere else, nobody is all good or all bad. Challenging circumstances make for unlikely bedfellows, and in a town (and a tale) filled with people with so many competing interests, it’s easy to understand why allegiances might shift.

Shortcomings aside, Kala is a pleasant and capable first novel that will please mystery fans. In his sophomore effort, though, I hope Walsh employs a tighter structure — especially with regard to revealing the consequences characters face for their actions — in order to deliver a swifter, more engaging read.

Chris Rutledge is a husband, father, writer, nonprofit professional, and community member living in Silver Spring, MD. Besides the Independent, his work has appeared in Kirkus Reviews, American Book Review, and countless intemperate Facebook posts, which will surely get him into trouble one day.

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