Kala: A Novel

Kala: A Novel

by Colin Walsh
Kala: A Novel

Kala: A Novel

by Colin Walsh


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Notes From Your Bookseller

What if a Sally Rooney novel read like a thriller? Kala combines relatable characters with a propulsive mystery (on par with that of Tana French) in this electric novel about fleeting youth and the ties that bind.

ONE OF NPR'S BEST BOOKS OF 2023 • INSTANT IRISH TIMES #1 BESTSELLER • ONE OF ELECTRIC LITERATURE'S MOST ANTICIPATED BOOKS OF THE YEAR • “A spectacular read for Donna Tartt and Tana French fans.” (Kirkus, Starred Review), this gripping literary page-turner traces the lives of former friends, estranged for fifteen years, as they reckon with the terrifying events of the summer that changed their lives.

“A master class in building suspense…Walsh manages a deft balance between adolescent angst and ecstasy — discoveries bringing horror, sorrow and joy — and the more deliberate, often elegiac reflections of adulthood, reckoning with the promises of the past." —The Washington Post

In the seaside town of Kinlough, on Ireland’s west coast, three old friends are thrown together for the first time in years. Helen, Joe, and Mushwere part of an original group of six inseparable teenagers in the summer of 2003, with motherless, reckless Kala Lanann as their group’s white-hot center. Soon after that summer’s peak, Kala disappeared without a trace.

Now it’s fifteen years later. Helen has reluctantly returned to Ireland for her father’s wedding; Joe is a world-famous musician, newly back in town; and Mush has never left, too scared to venture beyond the counter of his mother’s café.

But human remains have been discovered in the woods. Two more girls have gone missing. As past and present begin to collide, the estranged friends are forced to confront their own complicity in the events that led to Kala’s disappearance.

Against the backdrop of a town suffocating on its own secrets, in a story that builds from a smolder to a stunning climax, Kala brilliantly examines the sometimes brutal costs of belonging, as well as the battle in the human heart between vengeance and forgiveness, despair and redemption.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593470022
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/25/2024
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 330
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

About The Author
COLIN WALSH’s short stories have won several awards, including the RTÉ Francis MacManus Short Story Prize and the Hennessy Literary Award. In 2019 he was named Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year. His writing has been published in The Stinging Fly, The Irish Times and broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 and BBC Radio 4. Kala is his first novel. He is from Galway and lives in Belgium.

Read an Excerpt


I’m the wrong side of thirty and I still love it when summer bursts over this town. That school holiday vibe. First hint of suncream or cut grass hits the air, and I get the tingly bellyflut feeling. It’s always a surprise, like. As if every year I forget those smells exist, and bam! The world’s young again. Then it’s the stretch in the evenings, the drone of the bees, all that good shite.

After close-up I sit by the window of the caf with a six-pack of Tuborg on the counter. I knock the cans back as I watch Kinlough melt into a glisten, parading itself up and down Fox Street, being pure fabulous. People look the most alive they’ve been all year, like. Their smiles that bit wider. This type of heat makes shite out of everyone—people are lobster red and delirious by the end of the first week of it—but no one gives a fuck, cos Kinlough’s being a giddy carnival of itself, all saturated colours. Mams with prams, pizza-faced young bucks messing, young wans smoking, all shimmering and exaggerated movements. For a few weeks a year, Kinlough gets to be the place it really wants to be.

Last summer, when I still smoked, I used to duck out the caf every couple of hours, telling Mam I was out for a rollie. But what I really wanted was a few minutes’ peace to let summer flow over myself, and I could linger and merge with it.

No chance of that this year. I glance out the window whenever I can, but there’s no let-up. Town’s surging. You can smell the money. People come into the caf and make their orders in hysterical voices, sweat beading off them the second they hit the air conditioning. It’s a pain in the hoop. Mam loves it, of course. She has the chats with the punters, shouting over the scream of the bean grinder, handing out compliments with every coffee. I keep my back to her and the punters as I prepare the orders, throwing an eye to the madness of town outside. I’m like a dog in a hot car. Hard to even daydream when it’s this busy.

All the while, the queue’s getting longer, but Mam coos at babies, tells young fellas they’re filling out nicely—“Oh, you’ll break a few hearts!” that sort of bollocks—and she knocks a bit of craic out of little kids too. Leans over the counter and they look up at her, all moon-eyed next to their mothers. Mam insists on calling me away from my jobs to offer them some of the crumbled bits of brownie that we keep in a little basket by the till. I hold the basket out like some sort of medieval beggar. Mam gets all excited about the exchange, like it’s a real moment. She says, “That’s Mush’s Brilliant Brownie! Mush makes that every week, for good girls and boys like you!” The kids just paw at their mouths with the cake, in a world of pure chocolate. Then the mothers say stuff like, “What do you say to the nice man?” and the kids thank me in that vacant, haunted way kids have. I keep my face turned from them. Some mothers make a big hoo-ha of how grateful they are for Mush’s Brilliant Brownie, eager to show that my face doesn’t bother them. Others look uncomfortable, alarm in their eyes, despite themselves, and I can respect the honesty in that, even if it does send red blotches pattering up my neck. I mumble some thanks and get back to making the coffees with a towel thrown over my shoulder, head low, glancing out the window, counting down the hours till closing, when everyone will finally fuck off and I can crank up the sound system and have my few cans at the window, watch town do its thing for a bit, float into the beer buzz like a kite cutting its own strings.

It’s not easy. People are hyped. You’d like to think it’s cos of the Races, and the Festival with the parade, all that. Well, it’s not. There was a body found down the woods last week. By the lake. Human remains, that’s what they’re calling it. No one knows who it is. Was. Punters look around as they mutter about it. Human remains, they go, whispering loud enough to be heard, desperate to appear like they might have secret information.

Mam’s as bad as any of them. When Auntie Pauline came in earlier, I assumed it was to talk about her upcoming wedding. But the chat immediately swerved off the road into the ditch of human remains. Human remains, the pair of them said, eating each other’s words, delighted something’s happening, something you might read about in the paper.

People are as ghoulish, like.

Everyone’s got a theory about it. Even me. Some dark part of me immediately thought it’d be Kala. I didn’t want to think that, but sure you can spend your life wanting your brain to work one way and not another, walking around trying to control your thoughts like some fucking Rain Man. No use. The brain does what it wants. People mention human remains and a switch gets flicked in my skull and I see limbs lying in the mulch of the lake like the severed hands in Jaws, spilling with claw-clicking crabs. Only suddenly it’s not limbs, it’s Kala and she’s my friend and we’re still fifteen and she’s looking at me like I can still help, and it’s horrible.

So I kept quiet today, even as Mam and Auntie Pauline gossiped about it. Then they started going at me about getting my hair cut for the wedding. Mam said I’d a head on me like something dragged through a hedge. She wouldn’t leave me alone till I agreed to get a clip, just so they’d give me a bit of peace. Turned away from them and focused on things to look forward to.

My few cans of Tuborg. I’ve had them cooling in the fridge all day.

And now it’s only me and the sound system. I’ve counted the register, mopped the floor, wiped down the tables. I’m almost at the point where I can take my spot at the window.

I’m stacking the last of the chairs when the bell on the door tinkles and the twins come in doing their imperious little march to their favourite booth. Auntie Pauline named the twins Donna and Marie, after the Osmonds. Donna has her hair rowed into these knackery braids, and she’s wearing her I’m-sixteen-and-this-world’s-brutal puss face. Marie’s hair is bunched up in two little balls on her head, like Minnie Mouse. She smiles and gives me the finger as they take a booth.

I give her the finger back.

They used to call in to me for a hot chocolate after closing when they were kids, but that’s slacked off a fair bit since the eyeliner and fake tan came in.

I’ve already cleaned the machine, I tell them, and continue stack­ing the chairs. They don’t even say hello, just murmur. Marie taps on her phone while Donna tears sachets of sugar onto the table I’ve only just wiped down. I hesitate. “I’m only after wiping that down,” I say. Donna rolls her eyes so theatrically I have to dip my head or she’ll catch me smiling.

I suck on my mouth a moment, tap on the counter. I can picture the beads of glisten on the cans, tucked in the back of the fridge. This is my little moment of the day, like. To myself. The twins are sitting in their booth, not paying any mind. This is the way it’s been with them for a while. They impose themselves on you, this pure moody silence, and make you ask them questions just to break the silence they’re after fucking creating. Teenagers.

“So, what have ye been at today, then?”

“Ah,” Marie shrugs, staring at her phone. “Nothing, like.”

She holds the phone out to Donna, and Donna starts laughing, hand over her mouth.

“Oh my God,” Donna says, and they giggle together. “Oh my God.”

I sigh. “Hot chocolate, is it?”

Donna shrugs. “Yeah, whatever.”

“Make mine a flat white, actually, Mush,” Marie says, yawning. I raise an eyebrow at that—flat white, is it?—and she raises one back, big mocking shit-eater of a grin on her. Again, I’ve to dip my head or I’ll give the game away. Smile and it encourages them.

So I get to work, grinding the beans, frothing the milk, and over my shoulder I hear them huddled and giggling at whatever’s happening on Marie’s phone.

Some stupid part of me still thinks of them as kids. And they’d been lovely kids. Always a bit of a handful, like, but you wouldn’t change them for anything. I’d been the cool cousin they always wanted to sleep over. I used to build forts for them, extending the duvets over the gap between their two beds so they could pretend they were trapped in the dungeon of a witch. I introduced them to movies every kid should see—Princess Bride, The Goonies, stuff like that. Looking after them made me feel useful, good for something other than working in Mam’s café. Donna and Marie both asked me to be their sponsor when they made their Confirmation, and made me escort them to the little party held for their class at the Fitz Hotel. There was a disco with coloured lights and a mirror ball. All these twelve-year-old girls on the dance floor together, demented on sugar, on each other. Auntie Pauline was still married to Uncle Ger at the time. I was sitting quietly with them and Mam, nursing a pint, when the twins came over and took me by both hands and insisted I get up and dance with them. I was mortified. I had my head dipped the whole time. But the girls were delighted—they whooped and shouted, “Mush! Mush!”—showing me off to their friends like I was a trophy.

When I bring them their drinks, Marie’s rolling two cigarettes.

“Your mother was in earlier.”

Marie doesn’t look up. “Pauline,” she says. She sings her mam’s name like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”

“Was she crooning?” Donna says. “Mam’s always crooning these days. Wedding jitters. Going about cleaning the house, laughing to herself.”

“Sure that’s nice, isn’t it?” I say.

“She’s being a dope,” Donna says.

“Ah,” I go. “She’s only happy.”

“She’s. Being. A dope,” Donna says. Christ, she’s got some sulk on her today. When she’s on form like this, she gets this furrow between her eyes. It’s always been lovely to me.

“Well,” I say, “not long now till the big day and then everything’ll be back to normal.”

There’s an awkward pause. In fairness, it was a stupid thing to say. Obviously things won’t be back to normal—their mother’s getting married. Herself and Rossie Laughlin, making a go of it in the town hall on Monday. When they moved into Rossie’s house last year, it was Brady Bunch style for a while, two families under one roof: Pauline and the twins along with Rossie and Rossie’s daughter, Theresa. Mam and Auntie Pauline were talking about Theresa earlier: “How old would she be now? Twenty-five? Twenty-six?” “She’s one of them vegans, so she is.” That’s how Mam said it, “One of them vegans,” like she was talking about something from outer space. Mam got me to help Theresa move into a flat of her own a few months ago. I was all antsy at first, being out of the caf and all that. But it ended up being really good craic hanging out with Theresa. Like, I’d still been thinking of her as Helen’s baby sister, but here was this pure sound grown woman giving me hippie tea, telling me funny backpacking stories, talking about her art practice like I’d have a notion what that was. I couldn’t resist asking Theresa if she thought Helen might come back for the wedding. Theresa just shrugged and made a “who knows” flick of the hands.

“Are ye set for Auntie Pauline’s shindig tomorrow?” I say.

“Can’t wait,” Donna mumbles.

“She’s calling it her bachelorette party,” Marie says.

“Her hen party,” Donna says.

“We’re bringing willy straws,” Marie says.

Donna snorts. I hope they’re not bringing willy straws.

“Still off the smokes?” Marie says.

“I am.”

“D’you not get bored, like? Maybe you should vape,” Marie says. The idea seems to excite her. “Oh my God, he should vape.”

“Vapers are cunt wands,” Donna snaps.

Jesus. She’s in such a mood, like.

Donna’s always been more volatile than Marie. Less fluent with words, always confusing signals, getting it slightly wrong, getting angry at herself for getting it wrong, taking it out on whoever’s there. This one evening, when the twins were only young, I was in their kitchen and they were stuffing their skulls with pepperoni pizza. They were giddy cos I was there to babysit. They kept shouting, “Food in face! Food in faaaace!” as they ate. Auntie Pauline was doing Uncle Ger’s tie and giving me pointers on bathtimes, bedtimes, all that, when Donna called out, “Look at me!” She had a slice of pizza held next to her cheek like a monstrous melt of scar tissue. I knew she didn’t mean any harm, but I still felt my stomach drop as she put on a deep voice and said, “I’m Mush! I’m Mush!”

Auntie Pauline looked mortified. “Love!” she said, her eyes glancing automatically at my scars. “That’s not very nice.”

Uncle Ger said nothing. He just walked over to Donna and wrenched her hair tight in his fist. She squealed. I didn’t know where to look. It was awful. “What do you say to your cousin?” Uncle Ger said in a calm voice. “Sorrysorrysorrysorry,” Donna cried.

I shift in my seat. “How’s your dad getting on?”

“Oh, brilliant,” Marie says. “Probably shitfaced in his kitchen right now.”

“Wish I was shitfaced right now,” Donna says.

“He’s pathetic,” Marie says.

“He’s just sad,” Donna says.

“He’s pathetic,” Marie says in a firm voice. “Sitting up on that farm, feeling sorry for himself. I wouldn’t live up there if you paid me. State of him.”

I know it sounds bad, but I’m glad Marie talks about her father that way. Donna still has this kind of confused loyalty to him but, fact is, Uncle Ger’s no one’s idea of a good time. He’s been living with his nephew Teabag on the big farm out in the Warren ever since the divorce a few years back. Mam was delighted when Auntie Pauline finally left him.

“Sure ye’ll be off to college soon enough,” I say, foot tapping. I’d murder a can. “Only two more years. Then ye won’t have to live with any of your stupid family ever again.”

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