THERE is much to admire in Cate Kennedy's debut collection of short stories, Dark Roots; most of all the fact that nearly all of the stories have won major competitions. Set in Australia, where Kennedy lives, she pens terrific stories about personal tragedies and the miseries of relationships. Plot-wise, these stories are thin, as Kennedy prefers her stories to be more like meditations - but they are linked by her sharp, assured voice and wise closing sentences.

Without a doubt, the best story is Cold Snap, published in The New Yorker. A young boy who has a unique affinity with nature feels threatened by the arrival of sophisticated city-dwellers up the hill. Tension arrives when his new neighbours tear down a tree outside their window. The foreboding tone of the story is softened by the boy's supernatural ability to close his eyes, rise into the sky, and look down at the treetops. Kennedy handles Billy's troubled mind delicately, revealing near the end that he lost his mother and must protect what he has left. A sick, unexpected twist closes this chilly story.

Likewise, the award-winning story, What Thou And I Did, Till We Loved, holds one's attention from the first few sentences. Each day Rebecca arrives at the hospital to visit her partner Beth, who lies in a coma after a motor accident. To illustrate the depth of their relationship, the story flashes back to how the pair spent their time together. Kennedy pulls all the sentimental stops here - the lovers discuss Donne's poetry, they fix up their house together, they lick crumbs off each other's lips - but the writing is anything but cheesy. Rather, Kennedy's simple language makes these episodes seem delightful. In contrast, Kennedy captures the grim hospital visits, and the stiff jargon used by doctors and nurses, particularly well. As Beth's power of attorney, Rebecca can decide whether or not to end her partner's suffering. Her weariness and dread are felt well beyond the last paragraph.

But it's not just a collection of sad stories - others are much cheerier. The Correct Names Of Things is a light, coming-of-age piece that won the University of Canberra short story competition in 1997. Ellen, a college student, finds that she learns more about life waitressing at Eddie Lim's Chinese restaurant than she does from her Russian lit course.

Bright descriptions of hot takeaway orders pepper the pages, and there's a convivial atmosphere in the kitchen when the cooks show Ellen how to fold spring rolls. The story gets more complex as we learn about the brothel upstairs and Eddie's gambling addictions that threaten to close his restaurant. It's a great story that mixes offbeat, likeable characters with honest narration.

Unfortunately, we are let down in the title story, Dark Roots. Told in overly dramatic second-person, it lacks Kennedy's fully-realised voice. The premise is also a little shallow. Mel, a 39-year-old woman, dates a doctoral student 13 years her junior. Her insecurity about her ageing appearance injures their relationship, which doesn't seem very special to begin with. In an attempt to boost her confidence, she goes for a full body-wax. While lying on the table, she halts the procedure mid-rip due to an easily anticipated revelation - she can just be herself. Dark Roots is one of the few stories not previously selected for publication or a competition, and it's unclear why it's the title story.

However, this is an intelligent, well-crafted collection and Kennedy is an exceptional writer. These stories are narrated with confidence and grace, and switch with ease from a 10-year-old boy's voice to a grieving young woman's. Kennedy's background as a poet and travel writer are revealed through her imaginative language and lyrical paragraphs. The powerful narration in some of her stories fully captures the human voice in distress.

A few of these stories were published more than a decade ago, and it's clear that this collection was put together with much consideration. The result is an accomplished set of stories that will be read for a long time to come.