REVIEW: Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng

In brief: Meg is 75 and living alone. Andy is a university student needing somewhere to live. The pair find themselves living together, each with their worries and pressures and becoming unlikely friends.

The good: This book is a beautiful illustration of how two different people can be very good for each other.

The not-so-good: Some of the choices made by Andy and Meg aren’t the wisest.

Why I chose it: Loved Australia Day
with a passion. Thanks Text Publishing for the copy.

Year: 2019

Pages: 271

Publisher: Text Publishing

Setting: Melbourne, Australia

Rating: 10 out of 10

I have been dithering about, tweaking computer settings and looking at fuel prices, instead of writing this review. Why? Because Room for a Stranger is so good that my review won’t do it justice. The cheat’s way out would be to say, “Stop reading this review and start reading this book – now”. But a potential reader might not listen to that, so let me try to convince you.

The main characters in Room for a Stranger are an elderly lady, a university student from Hong Kong, their friends and an African grey parrot. The parrot is not only a lovely distraction with his spookily relevant English but an important part of the plot. These disparate characters create a story that is about loneliness and isolation, but also about unlikely friendships. Meg has been living at home alone since the death of her sister, but an encounter with an intruder leaves her feeling vulnerable and scared. She signs up for a home share program to let out a room to a university student. That student is Andy, who is from Hong Kong, studying biomedicine in the hope of getting into medicine. Andy’s not doing too well at university and he has worries about his parents and their situation. Meg is worried too about her health, her friends and meeting Andy’s expectations. What starts as an awkward home scenario where two strangers tiptoe around each other gradually develops into the kind of bond where they can discuss their deepest fears that they can’t reveal to those closest to them.

The story is wonderfully suburban and rather Melbournian in its descriptions of possums and trams. It’s not a ‘big’ story – when I say big, I mean that it doesn’t encompass huge travels, land or generations – but works to capture a short period of time in two everyday lives. Some may say that Meg and Andy’s problems are relatively small but they are huge to them. Fear of death, illness, failure and disappointing others. Meg is worried about not keeping up with her glamourous friends (and I thought female competitiveness might get better with age!) and she’s worried about starting a new relationship. Andy doesn’t want to disappoint his parents, so goes to extreme steps to ensure he passes his exams. Both Meg and Andy meet significant challenges and make mistakes, which is what makes this story and the characters so real. They are flawed, say stupid things and mess up. It makes the story wonderfully rich.

Small details further enrich this book. Meg’s ‘famous’ spag bol (spaghetti bolognese) is a dish she’s proud of and makes often for Andy. Andy can’t stand it and will often retreat to late night snacks of instant noodles. (I tend to agree with Andy – Meg’s additions to the dish are pretty weird for this spag bol connoisseur). Later Andy introduces Meg to the wonders of instant noodles during a late night meeting. I found this so sweet, as was the ending when Andy and Meg part and all the things are said.

Overall, Room for a Stranger is a quiet, beautiful book of what happens when we open ourselves to strangers. This is a quality Australian read that won’t disappoint.

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