Book review: Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng

(cover image courtesy Text Publishing)

The interior is a place that most of us know only too well.

Whether it’s mental health issues, loss and grief, regrets, hope and dreams, or simply dismay at the way a colleague or family member has treated us, our natural inclination seems to be to tuck them far away and to not discuss them with anyone.

It’s a self-protective mechanism and it makes sense as a way of shielding us from even more imagined hurt or embarrassment but as Melanie Cheng beautifully explores in her novel, Room For a Stranger, there is a freedom that comes from lifting the covers, from pulling back The Wizard of Oz-ish curtain and from coming clean about everything.

Terrifying, yes; excruciatingly awful at times, most certainly.

But ultimately freeing? Absolutely, something that Hong Kong biomedicine student Andy Chan, in his second year at university in Melbourne and flailing, and well-into-her-70s Meg Hughes, still in her childhood home, lonely and awash in regret, discover when the unlikeliest of roommates come together.

Triggered by the collapse of Andy’s parents’ cleaning business, the only child with the weight of the world on his shoulders and near-insurmountable expectations wrapped albatross-like around his neck, is forced to find a new home, one he can actually afford to live in.

“As soon as dinner was finished, Andy retreated to his room. Meg sat in the lounge, 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 has passed away.” (P. 37)

So he moves out of his apartment close to Chinatown in inner city Melbourne, and out to the suburbs where Meg awaits with much nervousness, a volubly-talkative, mischievous African Grey parrot named Atticus and a home that has seen better days, both in terms of upkeep and liveliness.

Meg is still lost in the grief of losing her sister Helen after years of paraplegia, and figures that having Andy around will added some desperately-needed missing spark to her uneventful life.

But Andy is mired down by issues with his parents, a degree that is close to sinking him, and his parents’ hopes and dreams, without a trace, and the sense that life really isn’t worth living.

So, not a match made in heaven, and not for the reasons you may think.

But little bit by little bit, a bowl of steaming hot noodles here, a birthday celebration in Chinatown there, and Andy and Meg actually become friends; not bosom buddies but people who begin to understand that unburdening yourself, even if it’s not to the person who is the catalyst for your awakening, carries with it multitudinous freedoms previously unknown.

Melanie Cheng (image courtesy Text Publishing)

Room For a Stranger may sound weighted and heavy, but it’s in many ways a light and charming book, full of possibility and the slowly-unfurling thrill of what might be, in which some fairly intense issues are explored in a quietly-disarming way that sneaks up on you much the unexpected friendship between Andy and Meg.

What gives Room For a Stranger such a richness and truthfulness is the way this friendship doesn’t magically happen overnight, taking time to develop in a two steps forward, one step back way that feels realistic and true to the way that people separated by age, culture and life experience might slowly grow to appreciate each other.

Watching the dawning realisation on both Meg and Andy that not only is this most unlikely of housemates a friend but someone who is awakening previously-unexplored or deeply-suppressed thoughts and emotion is a joy.

It honestly feels like you’re taking this liberating journey with them and so likeable are these two eventual friends, that watching them pull themselves free from the bogs of the enervating stories they have told themselves and head off somewhere freeing and different feels like it’s happening to two close and very special friends.

And that is how it feels as it remarkably deceptive book goes along, so quiet and unassuming in the way the narrative progresses that you don’t realise how weighty its many musings and wise insights are until they are right on top of you, forcing you, in the very best of ways, to think about how much you have held inside and how much damage it may have done you.

“Meg was studying the will kit she’d bought at the post office when Andy called. The phone caught her by surprise—nobody called her anymore—but she was thrilled to hear his voice. Their last interaction, muffled by face masks, had been like something out of a horror movie. There was a forensic feel about the way his family had taken cautious steps down the hallway—their eyes wide and vigilant, their arms fixed close to their sides. Now he said he wanted to meet her, just the two of them, away from Atticus, at Café Bonjour.” (P. 258)

That’s the chief joy of Room For a Stranger – its capacity for revealing the hitherto-untouched wounds, in ways confronting and hard and then making it gloriously and liberatingly clear that this isn’t the end of the story and that healing, actually healing and not just the idea of it, is possible (though not without complications).

The best part is that its explored and expressed in a way that actually feels like it could happen, a far cry from those books which seem to sprinkle fairy dust in such a way that all the problems are vanquished and pain dispatched to an abyss from which springs only unlimited happiness, peace and joy.

That’s not quite how life works, of course, and Room For a Stranger respects that with care, understanding and a real appreciation for the way people are their own worst enemies and salvation, wrapped in a flesh-bound bundles of nerves, misperceptions and insecurities.

Meg and Andy get a happy ending of sorts but it’s a messily-incomplete one that offers a profoundly-real hope for the future that offers much but also acknowledges how much work will need to be done to realise it fully, if at all.

It’s a gloriously liberating place to get to, both for Meg and Andy, and for those of us lucky enough to share their journey, and you’ll be thinking about this beautiful novel and everything it means and entails long after Meg has switched off that final light.

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