Meg is in her seventies and lives in the same home she grew up in. Since her sister died, Meg has been on her own. She doesn’t mind, not really—not with Atticus, her African grey parrot, to keep her company—but after her house is broken into by a knife-wielding intruder, she decides it might be good to have some company after all. She signs up to a homeshare program, and meets Andy, who moves into her spare bedroom.
Andy is a 21-year-old biomedicine student from Hong Kong. His father has lost his job, so there is enormous pressure on Andy to succeed, and to do that he must give up his student flat and find a cheaper place to live so he can still graduate.
This book made my heart ache. It is a tender, witty, and utterly beautiful story. The prose is elegant and polished, the characters haunting me still. Melanie Cheng’s first book Australia Day won the 2018 the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction. Room for a Stranger confirms her status of one of Australia’s most gifted writers.
Room for a Stranger is about two ordinary people living unremarkable lives, and yet the reader is captivated by both characters. Cheng alternates between the perspectives of each character, bringing two completely different people to life for the reader: young and old, Chinese and Anglo-Australian, an older woman realising she has very little of value to reflect back on and a young man who struggles to clearly see his future.
For Andy, living with an elderly Australian woman is harder than expected. He worries about the cleanliness of Meg’s home and fears catching a disease from her parrot. He struggles with his studies and considers paying someone to sit his exams for him. He can’t sleep, disturbed by the possum on the roof. He is a young man in pain, grappling with his past and the expectations about what his future must be.
Meg is also at a loss with how to connect to the young man with whom she now shares a home. Initially, she wanted someone who kept to themselves and didn’t invade her space, but now that she has that, she craves more connection. She’s also unwell, acutely aware that she should have done more in life.
But this isn’t a book about big change for either character. It’s about uneasy and quiet acceptance and tentative friendship. These two housemates awkwardly circle around each other, with the reader desperately wanting them to communicate more clearly to bridge the divide. But like Cheng’s sublime prose, the characters remain restrained.
Room for a Stranger addresses some big themes such as racism, mental health, aging and loneliness, through the simplicity and humanity of Cheng’s astute observations. It is an important Australian novel, thought-provoking and timely. A modern masterpiece.
I loved this book. I am recommending it to anyone and everyone who will listen.
Melanie Cheng is a writer and general practitioner. She was born in Adelaide, grew up in Hong Kong and now lives in Melbourne.