Books

Melanie Cheng
Room for a Stranger

Room for a Stranger is a story about an unlikely friendship, forged between two shy and reticent people from very different cultural and social contexts. There’s Meg, an elderly woman living in the same suburban home that she grew up in, alone after a life of caring for others; and Andy, a 19-year-old biomedicine student from Hong Kong, struggling with his degree and with the expectations of his family who are entangled with it. Rattled after an attempted break-in, Meg signs up to a homeshare program – and so Andy comes to live in her spare bedroom. The pair must find a way to get along together, understand each other, despite their very different perspectives and assumptions.

And this is where the book is at its strongest: both Meg and Andy are finely drawn as characters and Melanie Cheng’s narration skilfully switches between each point of view, uncovering the subtle points of miscommunication and misunderstanding between them, alongside their different reactions to the everyday racism Andy frequently encounters, to which Meg had previously been largely oblivious. Cheng’s depiction of her characters is very tender: both are fragile, uncertain and largely living their lives under the impress of forces much greater than their own desires. Many of their interactions, too, are interrupted by moments of humour, as when Meg’s pet parrot, the wonderfully named Atticus, bursts out in singsong-speech, inappropriate and slyly truthful as a Shakespearian fool.

Room for a Stranger is Cheng’s first novel, a follow-up to her award-winning collection of stories, Australia Day, and the influence of the short-story form is clear across this book. The chapters are short and crisp and focused on small moments – indeed, the first half is structured almost as a series of set pieces. But as the novel develops, some of its narrative devices – including its climactic twist – feel a little contrived and its pacing isn’t always effective or even.

Nonetheless, this is a book with great heart and its gentle unfurling of Meg and Andy’s friendship, as well as the nuances of their characters, takes place with empathy and skill. Cheng’s real gift as a writer is in this kind of portraiture, in no small part because of her commitment to writing about people who aren’t often centred in our stories. Room for a Stranger is a tender and moving book and one that is ultimately life-affirming and full of hope and kindness.

Fiona Wright

Text, 224pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 2, 2019 as "Melanie Cheng, Room for a Stranger". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Fiona Wright