“Looking back now, Meg wished she had talked to people more – not small talk but proper conversations. Discussions about life and death and God and the universe. Instead, she’s spent her entire life doing what everyone else seemed to be doing – what she and Helen had, in turn, spent years teaching Atticus to do. Talking without really saying anything.”
Room For A Stranger is the first novel by award-winning Australian author, Melanie Cheng, following hot on the heels of her popular short story collection ‘Australia Day’ (which I have yet to read, but have certainly locked on my radar following this). I had this bookmarked as our next book club pick, when Text Publishing announced it as their book for their first online book club - The Common Room - so it just made sense for me to bump it up the list for our return to book club for July!
The book charts the ‘win-win’ scenario of our two protagonists joining a home share program where Meg, a retired white Australian, takes in Andy, a Chinese university student who is looking for a way to reduce his living costs in Melbourne. As part of the arrangement, Andy must help Meg with 10 hours a week of chores and housework. Seems like an easy enough deal for both parties, a deal that shouldn’t involve too much drama.
Instead, Cheng uses this platform to take us on a journey from the perspective of two distinct narratives, often relegated to the periphery of our social communities. She creates and weaves two very authentic characters, each with their separate concerns and anxieties about life, but that ultimately are not too different.
Meg has forfeited much in life in order to care for her family and has always lived in her family house. Now, the only surviving member, she has only a few friends and an African Grey parrot (Atticus) for company. Andy conversely is pursuing a pathway dominated by family expectations. His parents live an uneasy life at home in China, while he is trying to create a life in Australia that will ultimately see him support them. Australia-side, he has his Aunt, who while understanding, we see is struggling with her own challenges of fitting into the life she has made in Western society.
Despite the vastness of the cultural and generational gap between the two, they slowly build a bond that sees a knowing connection develop. For me, at the heart of this book is the deep sense of loneliness that can grow for those who are often invisible in our societies. And how the need for connection and to be seen, burns deeply in all of us.
I loved Cheng’s easy prose, and the subtle fast pace of the story, which kept me engaged and invested in the plights of both Meg and Andy. Cheng expertly draws in large and looming themes, which become a steady part of the story she tells: racism, ageing, cultural divides, generational divides, friendship, family loyalty, exam fraud, longing, and loneliness.
It is a subtly unassuming read, that I found both moving and thought-provoking, without being too much of a brain-drain. Definitely worth spending a quiet weekend with.
Find out what I'm reading next over on Goodreads.