Cheng, Melanie. Room for a Stranger. Melbourne, Victoria: Text Publishing, 2019. RRP $29.99. 288pp. ISBN: 9781925773545
Melanie Cheng’s Room for a Stranger is a considered, contemplative, and immensely readable exploration of the value of human connection in an increasingly isolated and disconnected world.
The title itself is a précis; Room for a Stranger is both literal in the sense that Andy—a stranger to Meg—takes a room in her house, and metaphorical in that both learn through the course of the story to make room for strangers and strangeness in their lives.
Meg Hughes and Andy Chan are simply existing; both lead singular, disconnected lives. While neither express a sense of loneliness, it’s implied in their thoughts, actions and experiences. Meg observes; ‘In many ways he was just like her—reserved and introverted—which was perfect, really, just what she’d been hoping for’ (19).
Meg has been the primary carer for her disabled sister for most of her life; she has never married, still lives in the family home and the extent of her social life is a coffee with friends each week. Cheng builds Meg’s character through simple observations; she is resilient, independent, content and at ease with her solitude.
It’d been years since she’d had anyone around to help her dress. For the most part she managed. Only once had she had to cut herself out of a skirt when a bit of fabric got caught in the zip. (7)
After a break-in leads to the arrival of Andy, Meg starts to realise how susceptible she is to the vulnerabilities of being elderly. It’s not even a case of survival of the fittest, as she finds out when a particularly vivacious friend passes away:
‘She died three days ago.’
‘My God.’ Meg felt the hair on her forearms stand on end.
‘In the middle of pilates. She excused herself from the class and collapsed in the gym stairwell.’ (54)
Meg’s reaction to the news is physical; her body and her subconscious are aware of her vulnerability even if she is not.
Andy is young, only twenty-one, but he, too, lives in a solitude that makes him vulnerable. He’s miles from his home country and family, socially awkward with few friends and communicates through his phone. He faces pressures from his family, pressures to maintain his culture and identity in a foreign country, and social and academic expectations from university. From the start, Andy rejects human connection, putting physical objects between himself and other people. At his first meeting with Meg, ‘Andy took a deep breath. On the other side of the door lay his new home and the stranger he’d be sharing it with. Feeling exposed, he picked up one of the boxes and held it before him like a shield.’ (11)
He is passive and voyeuristic; he sketches the girl he likes, Kiko, rather than talk to her. ‘His eyes lingered on a sketch of her profile. The nose was wrong, but he felt a swell of pride at the pleasing curve of her hair and the perfect arc of her ear.’ (42)
As the story progresses, these characters draw together through small threads of connection, and as they do, their relationships with other people strengthen and their lives become fuller. Their friendship helps to dispel vulnerabilities that they might otherwise have been susceptible to. In one instance, Andy chaperones Meg when she invites a man called Patrick round for a dinner date, and it is through Andy’s interaction with him that Meg sees Patrick for who he really is.
‘Hong Kong, Singapore, India—they’ve all done pretty well for themselves,’ Patrick went on, wiping his mouth with his serviette. ‘And that is in large part because of the British.’ (114)
Patrick’s racism jars with Meg’s cultural awareness, but it is Andy’s presence that reveals this side of Patrick that Meg might otherwise have not experienced.
As Andy and Meg’s emotional connection develops so does their dependence on one another, and their individual identities.
She told her about calling the police on the trespasser, and how Andy had taken control of the situation. As she spoke she suppressed her delight at the stunned look on Jillian’s face. (123)
Andy is no longer the boy who puts a physical object between himself and another human, instead he has ‘taken control’. Meg, too, has begun to accept help.
In Andy’s case the connection he makes with Meg is lifesaving, and leaves him realising how much he needs human connection.
Rather than degrading or infantilising, the attention was liberating for Andy. He was free from worry because there were lots of other people—professional people—doing the worrying for him.
He knew it couldn’t last forever, but he was caught off guard when the doctors told him he was about to be discharged. The news created a stir of panic. (199-200)
Cheng’s prose is gentle but it opens up a beauty in the ordinary aspects of human relationships that we take for granted. Room for a Stranger is a story about the lifesaving importance of human connection and understanding in an increasingly disconnected world. The moral of this story is clear: no matter how much society tell us otherwise, we cannot survive alone.
Jen is a writer and journalist based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. Previously Arts and Events Editor of Scoop Events, she now works in the marketing team at Fremantle Press.