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English & Literature Texts: Dark Roots - Cate Kennedy

Year 7-12 | Helpful guides for your English & Literature text studies.

Following her American debut in The New Yorker, Australian Cate Kennedy delivers a mesmerising collection of award-winning stories that daringly travel to the deepest depths of the human psyche. In this sublimely sophisticated and compulsively readable collection, Kennedy opens up worlds of finely observed detail to explore the collision between simmering inner lives, the cold outside world, and the hidden motivations that propel us all to act.

In just a few pages, Kennedy captures entire lives, expertly documenting the risks and compromises made in both forging and escaping relationships. Her stories are populated by people on the brink: whether it’s a woman floundering with her own loss and emotional immobility as her lover lies in a coma; a neglected wife who cannot convince her husband of the truth about his two brutish, shamelessly libidinous friends; or a married woman who comes to realise that her too-tight wedding ring isn’t the only thing that’s stuck in her relationship. Each character must make a choice and none is without consequence—even the smallest decisions have the power to destroy or renew, to recover and relinquish.

What Thou and I Did, Till We Loved

A Pitch Too High for the Human Ear



Cold Snap


The Testosterone Club

Dark Roots



The Light of Coincidence


Direct Action 

The Correct Names of Things 

Wheelbarrow Thief 

Sea Burial 

Kill or Cure

Use these discussion questions from Grove Atlantic to deepen your understanding of the text.

1. “I have been told, both in approval and in accusation, that I seem to love all my characters. What I do in writing of any character is to try to enter into the mind, heart, and skin of a human being who is not myself. Whether this happens to be a man or a woman, old or young, with skin black or white, the primary challenge lies in making the jump itself. It is the act of a writer’s imagination that I set most high.” —Eudora Welty

Do you think Kennedy seems to love all her characters? Does she enter completely into “the mind, heart, and skin” of different people? Do you, as a reader, feel drawn to follow her there? Which characters in these stories do you understand and feel the best, whether or not you condone their actions?

2. Did you find that the stories offer a surprising range of subjects, tones, and settings? Most are focused on one relationship or a family. Yet think about the variety of human natures and conflicts. The spirit may be sly satire or grim vengeance or just endurance, but usually with ironic insights. Which stories use shock value effectively? Which ones make you smile with satisfaction, perhaps along with the narrator?

3. Violence, real or imagined, is often a place of revelation or a sharp turning point. Think of the accident in “What Thou and I Did, Till We Loved.” And the near murder in “Flotsam.” Recall the sustained imagery of trapping that leads to the final event in “Cold Snap.” What other stories turn on a violent act?

4. Crimes can be blatant or subtle in the stories. Do you think some are even debatable? Eco-crime in “Direct Action” is a destructive yet justifiable act of civil disobedience in the eyes of the perpetrator. And in those of the reader? What about the border smuggling in “Habit”? Where on the scale would you put the pickling episode in “The Testosterone Club”? And how about letting the dog loose in “Sea Burial”?

5. Is lack of communication, or, more dramatically, a failure to communicate something crucial at a crucial time, often the problem in flawed relationships in the stories? In each of them do you notice small, seemingly insignificant moments that might magnify a whole malaise in a relationship? “Oh Andrew, he never talks” (p. 16) in “A Pitch Too High for the Human Ear.” In this story where does Andrew find his best communication? Does Kennedy allow us to feel sympathy for both husband and wife? Do you feel more empathy for a character with remorseful insight into his or her limitations? What does the title mean? And the forlorn last words, “Can you hear it Vicki? I want to say. It’s not words, it’s nothing so coherent as words. It’s all of us, hoarse with calling, straining in the darkness to hear something we recognise as our names” (p. 22).

6. When do women make conscious choices to leave men in the stories? When do women decide to live their own lives instead of plumping up and being subsumed by men? How is Daniel portrayed in “Wheelbarrow Thief”? How does Stella’s cuisine, especially her stock cooking, prefigure later events? (“But she sees now, what seemed like waste is actually a kind of gift. Something reduced to its essentials, a sum total strained of its parts” p. 159 ). What gives Stella the strength to free herself? “Thinking about it now she savours it, a distilled flavour, runs her hands down her breasts and hips and legs. She is all here, and the cramp is lifting off her like steam” (p. 164). Talk about a similar liberation in “Seizure.” Are certain traits shared by Steve and Daniel?

7. How does Monica start to preserve herself (preserve: an operative word in the story) by designating her husband and his two pals “The Testosterone Club”? What in their behavior merits this name? We read of “their complete confidence in their own majestic sexual magnetism” (p. 66). What is the tone of Monica’s recollections? Is she appalled, amused, or threatened by the trio? How do Monica’s talents as a can-do woman in the kitchen provide her highly satisfactory escape? How does her husband sow the mustard seed of his own destruction with his special gift to his wife? Does the story remind you a little of Alec Guiness’s film Kind Hearts and Coronets?

8. Would you say that Cate Kennedy is shrewd about contrasting turbulent interior lives with threats from the outside world? Which stories explore this contrast most dramatically? Can the outside threats be imagined, as perhaps in “Dark Roots”? Is the narrator her own nemesis as she “spirals down” into deception? She calls it a “slippery slope” and “a poison,” her fear of aging. “You have traded in your unselfconsciousness for this double-visioned state of standing outside yourself, watchful and tensed for exposure” (p. 84). Is there hope at the end for this May-October romance? What do you think will happen if she turns the light on?

9. In “Habit” when do we learn the sex of the narrator? Does withholding this information contribute to ambiguity in the story? Do we nonetheless learn quite a lot about the narrator through her internal monologue? How real is the menace at customs? How does it compare to the larger menace in the narrator’s life? Talk about how sentences like “I seem to be inviting confession,” “I have, I suppose, a habit,” “it’s the faith that heals,” and “I am blessed” stitch together the story?

10. In “Cold Snap,” how would you describe the boy’s mental state? Is he somehow gifted with odd intuition even though he is limited in other ways? How are his love and understanding of trees important to the story? Is it appropriate that the feed-store boy refers to Deliverance? How does the father’s revenge foreshadow the pattern of the story later, and does it create a sense of dread? How do the new people bring trouble on themselves? Comment on “Well, it looks like the light’s on but there’s no one home” (p. 52), “Look at all those bloody trees . . . I’m sick of the sight of them” (p. 53), and “I started explaining but she wasn’t really listening” (p. 53). Do the woman’s alien, exploitive values lead her to a trap? How does Billy use nature to ensnare “the loony lady” who is herself a threat to nature? “That’s what nature’s like, for everything poisonous there’s something nearby to cure it if you just look around” (p. 57).

11. In “Resize”, Dave as a husband feels bleak and inept. How does the imagery of removing the wedding rings (“He feels the moment heat up, become molten”) alleviate his feeling baffled and numb? Is the shift buttressed by the clunker of a car suddenly behaving? “He steps on the clutch and finds first gear, feeling the calibrations gnash like teeth momentarily then drop into place, lubricated, fitted together like bones in a hand” (p. 64). Talk about this shift of gears in the marriage.

12. Three of the stories set in motion the relationships of mothers and daughters. Explore the challenges, conflicts, and resolutions faced by both mothers and daughters in “Flotsam,” “Angel,” and “Soundtrack.” The characters and settings are strikingly different. Do you see any points of comparison? Are there some elements of universality?

13. Flannery O’Connor has said that “a story always involves, in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality.” Is that a useful way to look at the stories in Dark Roots? O’Connor further says that good stories are not triggered by problems or abstract issues but by concrete details and the five senses. Which of the stories leap to mind for the mystery of personality, concrete detail, and the senses? Can you give examples?

14. Motivation for characters’ actions can be murky and deceptive. Often even the characters fail to understand why they do what they do . . . or fail to do. Auden has said, “The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews.” Do you understand what drives people in this book? Which ones still perplex you?

Like a House on Fire (2012)

From prize-winning short-story writer Cate Kennedy comes a new collection to rival her highly acclaimed Dark Roots. In Like a House on Fire, Kennedy once again takes ordinary lives and dissects their ironies, injustices and pleasures with her humane eye and wry sense of humour. In ‘Laminex and Mirrors’, a young woman working as a cleaner in a hospital helps an elderly patient defy doctor’s orders. In ‘Cross-Country’, a jilted lover manages to misinterpret her ex’s new life. And in ‘Ashes’, a son accompanies his mother on a journey to scatter his father’s remains, while lifelong resentments simmer in the background. Cate Kennedy’s poignant short stories find the beauty and tragedy in illness and mortality, life and love.

The Tase of River Water (2011)

Disarming, warm, and always accessible, Cate Kennedy's poems make ordinary experiences glow. Everything that suffuses her well-loved prose is here: compassion, insight, lyrical precision, and the clear, minimalist eye that reveals how life can turn on a single moment. Musing on the undercurrents and interconnections between legacy, memory, motherhood and the natural world, the poems in the collection begin on the surface and then take us, gracefully and effortlessly, to a far more thought-provoking place.


The World Beneath (2009)

Once, Rich and Sandy were environmental activists, part of a world-famous blockade in Tasmania to save the wilderness. Now, twenty-five years later, they have both settled into the uncomfortable compromises of middle age - although they've gone about it in very different ways. About the only thing they have in common is their fifteen-year-old daughter, Sophie.
When the perennially restless Rich decides to take Sophie, whom he hardly knows, on a trek into the Tasmanian wilderness, his overconfidence and her growing disillusion with him set off a chain of events that no one could have predicted. Instead of respect, Rich finds antagonism in his relationship with Sophie; and in the vast landscape he once felt an affinity for, he encounters nothing but disorientation and fear.

Ultimately all three characters will learn that if they are to survive, each must traverse not only the secret territories that lie between them but also those within themselves.

                            Finding space to speak the sounds of silence

​Cate Kennedy is an Australian author based in Victoria. She graduated from University of Canberra and has also taught at several colleges, including The University of Melbourne. She is the author of the highly acclaimed novel The World Beneath, which won the People’s Choice Award in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 2010. It was also shortlisted for The Age fiction prize 2010 and the ASA Barbara Jefferis Award 2010, among others. She is an award-winning short-story writer whose work has twice won The Age Short Story Competition and has appeared in a range of publications, including The New Yorker. Her collection, Dark Roots, was shortlisted for the Steele Rudd Award in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards and for the Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. Cate is also the author of the travel memoir Sing, and Don’t Cry, and the poetry collections Joyflight and Signs of Other Fires. Her latest book is The Taste of River Water: New and Selected Poems by Cate Kennedy, which was published in May 2011 and won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards CJ Dennis Prize for Poetry.