Victoria Nugent reviews “Room for a Stranger” by Melanie Cheng
Room for a Stranger
by Melanie Cheng
Two strangers from completely different backgrounds with seemingly little in common thrown together, it’s a common enough set up for a novel. But in Room for A Stranger, Melanie Cheng uses that premise exceptionally well to create an undeniably pleasurable read, rich in texture and feeling.
Room For A Stranger is Cheng’s debut novel, following up from her acclaimed short story collection Australia Day, the 2018 winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.
The novel opens with Meg, an elderly woman, feeling vulnerable after an encounter with an intruder in her backyard. She is convinced now that ‘every black pane of glass concealed a lurking predator’ (4). With only her African grey parrot, Atticus, for company, she is drawn to a homeshare program to regain some feeling of control. So Andy, an international student from Hong Kong, moves into her suburban home.
With both ill at ease, it is almost immediately obvious that it won’t be a smooth melding of lives. Cheng deftly paints the story of how they connect and the cross-cultural and cross-generational challenges to that process. Communication, food and hygiene are just some of the points of difference that make it harder for the pair to understand each other.
The juxtaposition of chapters focusing on each protagonist’s perspective allows their different world views to be contrasted and compared. Meg faces the challenges of ageing, both physical and mental, while at the same time exploring what it means to date in later life. Andy is weighed down by the dual pressures of wanting to succeed in his studies and live up to his family’s expectations, while also hoping to gain the attention of female classmate, Kiko.
The most minute details of suburban Melbourne life give the setting extra depth, with Andy’s first observations of his new neighbourhood centring around ‘the smell of damp leaves, burnt toast and decomposing vegetables.’ (11) Through Meg’s eyes, the reader sees too how the suburb has evolved within her lifespan:
‘The suburb had changed so much since she and Jillian were kids, back when they could buy sixpence-worth of their favourite lollies- freckles and snakes- from the milk bar. Now the main street boasted an organic food store, a nail salon and a pilates studio with a terrible name : Keeping Karm. Every week Anne declared how much the suburb had evolved – as if rather than a postcode, it was some kind of living, breathing organism.’ (26)
A great attention to detail and astute observations breathe an extra level of complexity into the novel. Smell in particular plays a big role, from Andy wondering what Kiko might smell like ‘something citrusy, he imagined, something like freshly peeled mandarins’ (35) to the scent of oil, ginger and spring onions coming from the fast food restaurant where Andy meets Kanbei, who will sit Andy’s exam for the sum of $3000. At one stage, Andy, speaking to Meg, even spells it out for the reader, telling her that the part of the brain responsible for smell ‘connects directly to the memory centre.’ (94)
Cheng doesn’t shy away from racism, portraying clearly the kind of insidious everyday discrimination that is instantly recognisable for how true it rings to Australian life. An incident on a tram where a man shouts anti-Asian slurs is one such moment but ‘after three stops people were chatting again as if nothing happened. Only the Chinese students remained shaken- theirs heads hanging, their shoulders collapsed, their chests caving inwards.’ (81) As a counterpoint to the overt racism of this incident is in the overly jocular but ultimately patronising nature of comments by Patrick, Meg’s paramour, who talks to Andy about how he sees Hong Kong as having ‘done well’ and that it was ‘in large part because of the British.’ (114) Assumptions made by Meg’s friends about her new house guest also serve to highlight racial stereotypes as Anne guesses that Andy is ‘studious, I bet… They always are.’ (30)
Food plays a large role in the book, highlighting key differences in characters’ lives and experience and also acting as a touchstone for cultural backgrounds. From the pineapple upside-down cake Meg makes for Andy’s birthday to Patrick’s recount of scones at the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong with rose-petal jam to Andy taking Meg for dinner in Chinatown, mentions of food usually convey something about one or more characters’ experiences and world view.
Cheng deals with complex issues with aplomb, including navigating mental health carefully. The reader learns of Andy’s mother’s own postnatal depression before gradually getting a picture of Andy’s own anxieties and the ‘exhaustion of being himself. ‘ (155). Early in the novel, Andy has a moment of being jealous of the blanket over Atticus’ cage, wishing ‘someone would smother the endless chatter of his brain with a big black sheet.’ (23). Even the appearance during a tram trip of ‘a man with leaves in his hair talking loudly to an invisible companion.’ (153), draws attention to nuances in mental state, highlighting the complexities of the very concept of mental wellbeing.
Disability too is explored, through Meg’s recollections of late sister Helen, a paraplegic since an accident as a child. Tied up in these memories is Meg’s grief which for years after Helen’s death came in ‘paroxysms of sorrow that would arrive without warning, like a strike to the head from an unseen stalker.’ (68). Through such memories of grief, a funeral of a friend and even Meg’s own ageing process, the ideas of death and loss permeate the novel. They are tied up with the very concept of what illness means, as Meg tries to ignore warning signs while Andy struggles with his own decline in health.
Room For A Stranger is a novel which deftly paints a picture of the modern Australia known by so many; a miasmas of culture and world views. It’s a page turner of a book, an engrossing, easy read, but one with many layers of flavour and depth. With its accessible style, it’s not hard to imagine it becoming a common book club pick within coming years, and hopefully one that helps readers consider a wider range of perspectives and how two people can come at a situation with very different takes depending on their personal life experiences and backgrounds.
VICTORIA NUGENT is a full-time journalist and part time fiction writer living in regional Queensland.