CATE KENNEDY – Dark Roots
“The butcher becomes my friend. All day he bashes up the carcasses of dead things, and I’ve never seen the smile off his face. Now there’s a puzzle for you.”
Not only is that my little homage to my own smiley butchering Hubbie, but it beautifully represents the regular juxtaposition the following book presents… that beneath the common every day, lies something unknown, deeper, darker…
I came across Cate Kennedy and her work in a round-a-bout way. The year was 2013, and I was about 6 months pregnant.
It was also Hubbie and mine’s wedding anniversary, and on top of that I was going to a writing workshop up in the Dandenongs, hosted by none other than the above, yours truly.
I had been writing my young adult novel for a while, and when I heard about the workshop, was more than intrigued. More so because it was in a location we had been to the same time last year, and it was the foundation of this picturesque setting, that I decided to take a day off work, and take myself out of my comfort zone, and to a place, both figuratively and literally speaking, where I would be alone, vulnerable and at the mercy of possible harsh elements.
Not just the bush, but the critics.
The day was eye-opening in many ways. I learnt much, discovered not to compromise my style, whether in life or in writing, and found that as much as some people there were truly lovely and supportive, others eyed me off judgmentally and with deep critique.
It’s to be expected when there are many of the same field in the one room, and abundance isn’t the universal language of all.
At the end of the day, I purchased a book from Cate, as I had never even come across her name or style. Dark Roots it said, and she wished me well in the inside cover.
And finally, I started reading it over a year later, once baby girl was about 6 months old.
Let me start by saying that reading darkly-themed stories isn’t probably the best idea when you have a newborn.
Not to say the themes were horror and kept me up at night, when I already had a little monster doing that for me – no, not at all. Cate’s short stories embody a sense of unease about the world, about life, where people are placed in unfair situations, and in many of these they stay there. There’s a deeper meaning, a greater picture, a portrait to paint of the human condition. And it ain’t all fair and pretty.
Even when the endings are happy, and there are only few, they are so only by being bittersweet, where the happiness is tinged with just enough sadness to make you go, “oh, damn.”
Three things became apparent to me as I made my way through the stories. The first was how bleak the stories at the beginning of the book seemed, and how mid-way through they seemed to lift just that little bit to keep me going.
The second was the double-meaning of the story titles. Habit became an early favourite of mine, and very cleverly penned, both about drug use and a Nun. Resize becomes not only about resizing your wedding rings, but resizing your entire relationship. And The Light of Coincidence was another enjoyable one, talking about a favourite topic of mine, but one that showed the incredulity of life and how sometimes, things can work out in the most remarkable of ways. A game I started to play at the beginning of each story was to try and determine why the story name was as it was, only to find out it in fact had two meanings, almost every time.
However my third observation and confirmation, came early on in the realisation that I was not cut out for short stories, even more so, ones that had ‘dark roots.’ I prefer to fall in love with a set of characters and a different world over a period of time, where I dedicate myself to their path, rather than the quick chop and change, 15 or so pages dedicated to each story in this book. Having said that, Kennedy is one who performs this niche art form like the artist she is, capturing your attention, your heart and your mind, making you feel for a character who may be insane, pathetic, or a murderer, and make you root for them the whole way. She has an innate ability to pull at your heart strings by showing the rawness of life, and it’s because she does this so damn well, that I just can’t fathom the sadness of it all.
Her ability to represent life in its true form, either through dialogue or description is on key. She also brings an acute awareness to every day tasks, things that you wouldn’t normally think about, but reading her words you think ‘I get it.’ For example, in the first story the main character is climbing out of bed:
“This is how you slide from a bed: move your foot out and over the edge, find the floor, slide sideways supporting yourself on the bedside table, your fingers touching the fake antique lamp your parents gave you a pair of for a wedding present. Haul out from under the doona…”
And suddenly, I was the one climbing out of bed. Not only does she paint the picture as if she were watching you try to stealthily get out of bed undetected, but the addition of those physical descriptors, not just the antique lamp, but FAKE antique lamp from your parents no less, well here lies another back story…
Another story has a man fishing, and the visual imagery is so beautifully striking in its sadness:
“The trout lay there drowning in the air, and I could see the miraculous gills opening and closing, its eyes moving as it gulped the wrong element, two old scars on its big mottled back, and then everything slowed down and I reached my fingers, fumbling with agonised realisation, into the trout’s mouth to get that hook out, and I snatched the fish up in both hands and threw it into the water.”
And finally, when I read the following:
“Three years ago I tried some street coke and the hit was just enough, through the glucodin and speed percentage that seared into my nasal cavities, to make me make a vow to myself. I decided that if I ever had the chance, I would try the real thing: the purest, whitest, Colombian cocaine available to the casual buyer.”
I had to question, how did she know this so accurately?
However I had to remind myself of the funny fact I had once read, that writers become a neuro-blah expert on whatever they have set out to research, often overnight! It is just the life of a writer, to be as real as you can be about a subject matter… whether from living it, or studying it like hell.
In the story Habit, I found myself rooting for the protagonist to get through customs with their drugs, even before I knew they were dying, and needed the drugs! How does she do that? And when all became even clearer at the end, without giving too much away, suddenly all the Godly mentions and phrases had a double meaning that shone with heavenly clarity 🙂 I absolutely loved it, and it was probably the first ‘kinda’ happy ending that hit me, right there.
But many times, there was no ending. The story was just a window into another person’s world, their often difficult, uncertain life. There was the woman in Soundtrack, who suddenly had a child many years after having her first daughter, and how the ambulance couldn’t get there in time, so her teenage daughter helped deliver her child. And then life kept on going, to the soundtrack of life in the background. Then there was the story The Correct Names of Things, where Ellen worked in a Chinese shop in the 80s paying her way through uni. Another piece on how life is lived, and how you learn and attach names to things, where I had absolutely no idea where the story was going – it seemed, nowhere in particular, since it appeared to be more an explorative piece.
In Kill or Cure, the description of farm life was so meticulous, that I recalled Kennedy mentioning her own life on the farm many times, and suddenly it all made sense. The story of a woman moving to a farm with her farm husband, trying to adjust to the land, the life, and be accepted by him, the town, and his best friend, the dog… it was all so melancholy and lonely, I also had to wonder again, how much of it was fiction. Even without a proper ending here, you couldn’t not feel.
But for many of these stories, it didn’t appear to matter whether they had a purpose or ‘real’ ending, or not. They served their purpose by just providing a snapshot into another’s life, and I realised without my usual necessary closure need, that I kind of enjoyed it. The journey, and not the destination.
It was common to feel achy, sad and despondent when going through the book, like in the short story Angel, where the assault of a young child is hinted at and made definite by the direct retribution that happens after, and also Cold Snap, where a young boy is ridiculed and made to feel inferior. Here the boy is laughed at, with others saying in his earshot “it looks like the light’s on but there’s no one home,” so when those same few get what they deserve, you smile menacingly, while still feeling a pang of longing for a boy who doesn’t exist, and yet somehow, you know somewhere, he does.
Kennedy’s pace is fast, as suddenly you are here, then you are there, but it all happens in such continuous fluid motion that you didn’t even know you moved until you realised the sun was on your face as opposed to the bed you were just sleeping in. I felt like I could learn a thing or two from her genius. But I guess this is the way that short stories have to be, and when they are like this, they work brilliantly.
Her language is telling and cheeky too… like in the story Resizing, ‘lubricate’ is used in the context of getting a car started again, and yet it means so much more in a steamy car of a formerly fighting couple on the verge of reuniting. In The Testosterone Club, a house wife concocts some comedic revenge on her untrusting husband and his friends in the form of slowly curing pickles, which says so much about manhood and the ‘flaccid’ nature that it can fall into. Here, the routine and mediocrity of a boring housewife existence was captured well, recorded as so monotonous and regular, and yet so unexpected in its satisfying final outcome.
But, I found as I read, and continued to look back on my notes for Dark Roots, that there was Hope. Both in the form of me finding a short story that I really liked, and then the realisation that I might too, want to dabble in and try my own hand at short stories. I found my inspiration brewing in her story The Light of Coincidence. Not only did my home town and its landmarks feature prominently, but so did an area of speculation and great interest to me: Coincidence, fate, and how they play together. From the middle:
“Let me tell you a story, a connoisseur story of coincidence. There I was trundling down the ‘down’ escalator at Flinders Street Station, jammed into crowds of people, when who should I see but an old girlfriend I hadn’t seen in ten years going up the escalator across the way. She was in blue. Oblivious to my calling and waving, she disappeared up the moving stairwell. I was seized with an overwhelming urge to say hello, and at the bottom I turned and raced back up her escalator and was deposited in the whirlpool of commuters on the ground floor. No sign of her. I raced outside and saw her blue jumper, sixty or so metres up Swanston Street, so I barrelled across the road and caught up. Tender greetings followed.
‘What a coincidence,’ I said. ‘I just looked up at the right time to see you on the escalator in the station.’ A puzzled frown crossed her face.
‘I wasn’t in the station,’ she said.”
Chills, or what? The goosebumps I got from reading that grabbed my attention, and kept it more firmly for a good while after. Because when a writer develops in you some kind of emotion, whether that be sadness, grief, or more happily, belief and Hope, that is when one tends to turn up more often, and listen.
And after reading this book, I am listening.
There is Hope (and coincidence) for me just yet.
Kennedy’s short story title accurately portrays the content which you will find inside. Surface level will show you the every day, whereas when you go beyond this, and to the roots of the matter, you will find that in the character’s thoughts, lives, and ideas, some darkness lives. In doing this, she helps us teeter on the thread of human existence, where on one side it is sunny and well, and the other shows the motivations, fears and hopes that drive us, with the overwhelming blackness that can sometimes unify and occupy us all.
I see short stories in a different light now. Much lighter than the Dark Roots they came from, and I have Kennedy to thank for that. I am now looking forward to reading her other short story collection, ‘Like a House On Fire,’ waiting for me on my bookshelf.
I guess it takes time, but often things will work themselves out like that. Like the closing sentence in my favourite story, The Light of Coincidence:
“I slide it out and fit it into place, feeling the whole configuration resist, and move slightly out of skew. I move it back with the flat of my hand, feeling it shift. Strengthen. Interlock.”
Please let me know your thoughts on Dark Roots in the comments below, I would love to discuss with you 🙂