Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng


When you hear the one sentence describing each of the two main characters you would think this is an unlikely candidate for an uplifting-read book list, but that is where I came upon it. While I would not describe it as “uplifting,” I did find it to be a fine, engaging book. And there’s a bit that is quite timely. Meg is in her 70s and lives in the house where she grew up in a suburb of Melbourne, having spent her life caring for her mother and her sister who was unable to walk after an injury when she was 16. The other character is Andy who came to Melbourne from Hong Kong for biomedical school to satisfy his working class parents and finds himself on the verge of failure in the Australian school, his first failure as a student.

The connection between the two comes when Meg decides to find a boarder after she saw a young man looking in her window, later found to have had a knife. The arrangement is made through an agency that matches students with inexpensive housing. Andy’s father had been forced to sell his cleaning business so money for his education was suddenly very tight. The story of each character is told in alternating chapters.

Meg is on her own, but she does have two friends she meets regularly for lunch, women she has known since high school. She has had a nursery rhyme-reciting African Grey parrot named Atticus for 25 years. She has some trepidation about how a young person will find her house and that turns out to be a reasonable concern. Here’s how the chapter telling about Andy’s reaction begins:

Andy pulled the curtains closed and blew the dust from his fingers. Like so many in Hong Kong, he and his family had become fanatical about cleanliness and hygiene after the flu epidemics. They wore masks on public transport. They doused their hands with sanitizer after touching a door handle. When they were in a lift they used their elbows instead of their fingers to push the buttons.

All through dinner Andy had battled nausea at the memory of Mrs. Hughes handling her pet parrot. He’d watched and waited for her to wash her hands, but she never had.

There it is, the timely bit.

That chapter goes on with Andy’s effort to clean his room that night, creating quite a pile of blackened wipes.

They both have serious troubles and each of their lives take dramatic turns. Though their connections are jangled by these problems and their very different lives, their essential kindness to each other makes this book appealing.

Melanie Cheng, Room for a Stranger, Text Publishing, 2019, 220 pages (I read the kindle version). Available from Amazon.

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