May 2019

Noted

‘Room for a Stranger’ by Melanie Cheng

By Helen Elliott
‘Room for a Stranger’ by Melanie Cheng
The medico-writer delivers a novel driven less by storyline than accumulated observation

Meg, in her 70s, living alone in suburban Melbourne, decides to get a student from Homestay to make her feel more secure. Twenty-one-year-old Andy is from Hong Kong. He has been in Melbourne for a year studying biomedical sciences. Back in HK his mother is in a psychiatric hospital and his father is struggling to find money to pay Andy’s fees. At Meg’s, Andy will do 10 hours of housework in return for board and meals. The deal is practical. But rooming with a stranger involves intimate daily exchanges beyond the mere practical.

Melanie Cheng is doing the most difficult, most unfashionable thing: writing about the ordinary lives of ordinary people. Her accomplishment is catching the tremors of their uniqueness and, by underlining this, insisting that everyone is interesting. Being human is in itself extraordinary. Cheng, who won the 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards Prize for Fiction, is from the same tribe as Chekhov and Maugham. A GP by day, somehow, somewhere she manages to write. Medicos are skilled observers and Cheng brings a particular and intense attentiveness to the subject at hand. This narrative is driven not so much by storyline but by an accumulation of observation. None is dramatic but each is vivid. Cheng doesn’t see cultural clash; she overlays one culture on the other. In an Uber driving to Meg’s, Andy looks out onto the unfamiliar suburbs: “the cartoonish bungalows, the easily scaled waist-high timber fences. He’d grown up in an apartment with bars on every window.”

There are some comical scenes later when the ultra-hygienic Andy and the more casual Meg share meals. Meg doesn’t wash her hands between handling her magnificent grey parrot and serving Andy his lamb and mashed potato. The polite young man wants to vomit but he endures. Meg could use more help around the house but doesn’t ask. Both Meg and Andy want to please rather than be pleased but both have a magnitude of feeling and turmoil beneath the outward politesse.

Meg isn’t well. She’s familiar with sickness and death. She knows she should see a doctor, but then, at her age, with her small life puttering on as it always has, why give herself more stress? Fully aware that behind her there is no sweetness of a richly lived life to reflect upon, Meg accepts her fate with a haunting grace. And Andy? What does he see when he looks into his future? It seems his differences from Meg are just surfaces. There is no excess in these two beautiful characters; like the writing itself they function on restraint, an old-fashioned courtesy that goes hand in hand with kindness. This is an impressive and quietly significant book.

 

Text; $29.99

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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