Room for a Stranger (Text Publishing 2019), by Melanie Cheng, is a heart-warming story about friendship, aging and the kindness of strangers.
Meg Hughes, aged 75, is living alone in the house in which she was raised; the house where she spent so many years caring for her sister after a terrible accident. Since her sister’s death, Meg’s only companion has been Atticus, her talking African Grey Parrot. Her house is a reminder of all she has lost, and after a recent frightening assault, she is lonelier and more fearful than ever. She decides to take in a home share boarder, a 22-year-old student from Hong Kong. Andy is quiet, reserved, neat and tidy – all the qualities Meg wanted in a companion – but she worries that he is too quiet, that perhaps the house doesn’t suit him or even that he doesn’t like her. The disparity in age and culture and circumstances makes it hard for the two to find common ground.
This is a quiet, easy-to-read book that meanders along at a leisurely pace. The characters of both Meg and Andy are relatable and engaging, and it is lovely to see each alternate chapter switch between two such different perspectives: Meg reminiscing about her long life, those she has loved, all that she has achieved or wanted to achieve, and her regrets; and Andy, starting out with all the expectations of his family and the difficulties of his upbringing weighing heavily on his shoulders. Through Andy’s eyes, we see the oddities of Australian language, native fauna and customs; through Meg, we see her struggle to negotiate the modern ways of the world and to accept things that she once would have found untenable.
Towards the end of the novel, both Andy and Meg face crises, albeit of very different natures, and discover that although they are almost strangers, they share that common bond, the need for acceptance and reassurance, the want of a hand to hold in difficult times, the offer of simple moments of friendship that are priceless. The ending is somewhat unresolved, allowing the reader to imagine for ourselves what might happen in the coming weeks and months after the last page has been turned.