Val's Book Reviews

High Society

by Daniel Kalla

Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2024
$24.99 / 9781668053904

Once again, Vancouver author Daniel Kalla (Fit to Die) uses his expertise in the world of medicine to write an exhilarating psychological thriller. In High Society he looks into the volatile and controversial world of prescribed psychedelic drugs.

His protagonist, psychiatrist Dr. Holly Danvers, strongly believes that psychedelics can treat and help patients with addictions and various mental health issues. When administered by a qualified psychiatrist, of course, and in a controlled environment.

When she was sixteen Holly herself survived a car crash that killed her father. Although she has no memory of the actual crash and how it happened, the trauma of losing her father and believing she was responsible was eventually lessened by ayahuasca treatment—a native plant-based psychedelic therapy—in a “primeval Peruvian jungle.” A strong believer in psychedelic drugs, her beloved grandfather had taken Holly there to help with her depression.

Twenty years later, Holly Danvers has become a much sought-after Californian psychiatrist who has had miraculous results in her practice by treating patients suffering from addictions with psychedelics. She counts celebrities among her patients. 

Everything is going well until one of her famous patients goes public about his recovery. He’d used psychedelic drugs for a long-standing sex addiction. The publicity initially brings Dr. Danvers’ work and her practice to media attention. Another in the same group of patients (described as a “tribe”) overdoses and dies after accusing Dr. Danvers of inappropriate behaviour while she was under the influence of a dual therapy of ketamine and MDMA. The situation steadily worsens. As Holly describes it, “she would never have guessed that her life was about to be transformed.”

The story begins at one of her group therapy sessions. A group of seven patients sit in 

mocha-coloured leather recliners and form a crescent around Dr. Holly Danvers. Each of the seven seats is occupied. And what a hodgepodge of occupants they are: a rock star, a CEO, an activist, a fashion designer, a lawyer, a socialite, and even one of Holly’s own colleagues. To one another, they’re members of the same eclectic self-labeled “tribe.” But to Holly, they’re clients, a term she much prefers over patients.

Author Daniel Kalla (Michael Bednar Photography)

All of Kalla’s characters are very authentic, and their addictions are portrayed with conviction. We meet Elaine, Simon, Salvador, Liisa, Baljit, Reese and JJ, whose stories are absorbing. In the beginning they all support Dr. Danvers and her miraculous, albeit controversial, therapy. When things start to go wrong, however, the doubts begin to grow. A particularly astute insertion into the storyline is the group’s text chat. From the exchanges readers can glean their thoughts.

Holly turns to her estranged husband, Dr. Aaron Laing, for advice and help. Even though they have separated, they have maintained a friendship that allows her to feel comfortable telling him her fears and what could happen to her practice with so much media attention. One of the many problems in their marriage had been one of Aaron’s twin sons (Graham) from a previous relationship, whose dislike of Holly is very apparent. While the other son, Nate, had welcomed her into the family, Graham had been a thorn in her side.

Although Aaron appears to help and support his wife through her many problems, it is obvious he is simply trying to get her to move back in with him and work on their marriage.

Another very likeable character in the story is Holly’s grandfather, Dr. Walter Danvers. He raised her after the accident and advises her as an adult. In order to believe she can understand what is happening, Holly decides she needs to dig deeper into her own trauma from the car crash twenty years earlier and discover the truth about what happened on that day. Her grandfather believes she should let it lie in the past.

His outlook makes Holly realize she was not the only one who suffered that day. Her grandfather lost a son; her mother, who mostly suffered in silence, lost a husband. Holly sees, the “poor woman, who was never equipped to handle intense emotions, not only had to cope with the death of her spouse and her daughter’s depression, but she also had to carry the secret that her husband was about to leave her right before she died.”

Eventually, Holly realizes she alone must discover why her clients are relapsing and dying so she talks to the police for help. It is her belief that suicides are not always as they seem and her group of seven might well have been led astray from outside forces. Detective Rivers is then introduced into the intriguing plot.

Kalla’s gift for building tension is always present in his novels and High Society is no exception. As the plot evolves to a spectacular climax, the reader is led down many paths wondering who is behind all that is happening to Dr. Holly Danvers. Once again, Kalla dares to put his writing finger on an intriguing topic and brings it to a sparkling conclusion.

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