Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng
Melanie Cheng arrived on the Australian literary scene in style. Her debut story collection, Australia Day, won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript; then, upon publication, it was shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, and it won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Fiction.
In Australia Day, Cheng’s characters were many, diverse and intriguing; in her debut novel, Room for a Stranger, she focuses on just two characters and brings her signature empathy to their lives.
Meg, an Anglo-Australian woman in her late seventies, still lives in the house where she grew up. She has outlived the sister who was her closest friend and for whom she cared during a long illness. After a frightening home invasion, she signs up with a home-sharing organisation to host a student. She requests a male student in the hope of protection.
Andy is a student from Hong Kong who is studying bioscience in an attempt to get into medicine. He is shy and uncertain, and overwhelmed by the expectations of his parents back home. He knows his parents are sacrificing a lot for him to study overseas, and money is tight. He is struggling to pass his course and having difficulty sleeping.
Cheng alternates between the perspectives of each character, and the reader can see the impact each is having on the other in subtle and not so subtle ways. Meg begins keeping a secret, and Andy’s fears link back to his family and childhood in Hong Kong. In Cheng’s sparse prose: ‘At worst he felt like a burden; at best, a nuisance.’ Andy, isolated and guilt-ridden, seems on a collision course with disaster.
Combining these unlikely characters brings up social issues such as racism, how the elderly are perceived and valued, mental illness, and parental pressure. With such rich characterisation and beautiful prose, this is a wonderful, contemporary Australian novel.