Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Fiction, general, literary fiction, Melanie Cheng, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘Room for a Stranger’ by Melanie Cheng

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 271 pages; 2019.

Melanie Cheng’s Room for a Stranger is a beautiful, bittersweet story about finding friendship in the most unexpected of places.

I loved this debut novel so much I ate it up in the space of an evening; I simply could not put the book down without finding out what happened to the two central characters.

Those characters are poles apart in age and upbringing and cultural background.

Meg Hughes is in her 70s, has never married and lives alone with her talkative pet African grey parrot in a small suburban house 10 km from the centre of Melbourne. She’s still mourning the death of her younger sister, a paraplegic, whom she looked after for many years.

Andy Chan, who is almost 22, is a biomedical student from Hong Kong. He’s on the brink of failing his university course but as an only child feels the pressure to succeed to please his working class father.

The pair are thrown together when Meg decides to rent out her spare room — the one her late sister lived in — because she’s recently experienced a violent break-in and thinks some male company might make her feel safer. Andy takes the room because he needs to cut costs following the collapse of his father’s business back in Hong Kong. But when he moves into Meg’s home it’s not all plain sailing.

As soon as dinner was finished, Andy retreated to his room. Meg sat in the lounge, alone, watching ‘The Voice’. When Meg had applied to the homeshare program, she’d been seeking the protection of an extra body — preferably male — inside her house. She’d hoped for somebody quiet, somebody who kept to himself. She’d said as much to the skinny lady with kind eyes at the homeshare office. But now Meg wondered if perhaps she wanted more than that — some company, a snippet of conversation, some remedy for the loneliness she’d felt since Helen had passed away. And while she’d slept more soundly these past few nights knowing Andy was in the next room, now she found herself scrutinising their interactions. Why didn’t he make eye contact? Did he hate her? What did he do for all those hours, locked away in his room?

The book charts the relationship between Meg and Andy as it slowly thaws and the pair come to know each other a little better.

It’s lightly humorous throughout — particularly in the interactions with Atticus the parrot who has a wide vocabulary — but is undercut with some serious issues, including loneliness, racism, sexism, stress and health in older women.

It’s told in short, sharp chapters, with each character taking turns to tell their side of the story.

Through the subsidiary characters we meet along the way — including the small group of friends Meg meets for coffee every week and her would-be suitor Patrick, and Andy’s student friend Ming, also from Hong Kong, and Kiko, the young Japanese woman he admires from afar — we see how thinly stretched their social circles and connections really are.

As the tale gently unfolds we learn that both Meg and Andy have closely held troubles of their own — Meg feels like she’s wasted her life looking after other people; Andy thinks his father blames him for his mother’s psychiatric problems — but despite their 50-year age difference they have more in common than they might think. It’s only when a dramatic event takes place that they come to understand the closeness of their bond.

Room for a Stranger is a simple story about ordinary people trying to find their place in the world, but it’s told in such a warm, empathetic way — free from cliché and sentiment — that it’s a true joy to read. I loved it.

This is my 13th book for #AWW2019.