Meg knows that Atticus her African Grey Parrot is no help with her growing anxiety about her safety. Months ago, Meg confronted an intruder in her house. When the police caught him, they told her he had a switchblade on him and since that day Meg has found herself worrying more and more about her safety. Paranoia’s grip tightening with each day.
Meg’s solution to the problem is to enter a home-share arrangement. The person she will be sharing the house with is Andy Chan, a twenty-one-year old Chinese, university student.
The second chapter shifts to Andy’s perspective and we find out that it was his aunt who suggested the home sharing with him. Andy is still not sure about it. Especially the huge age difference between himself and Meg. Unfortunately, economically he has no choice.
The shift in perspective becomes a regular thing and in chapter three the perspective returns to Meg. Initially she is baffled by Andy’s duffel bag and boxes. The coordinator had told her that this first meeting was just an introduction. A way to see if the two of them “hit it off” so to speak, but Andy looks ready to move in right now. When Andy meets the adorable Atticus, it seems that the parrot has shattered the icy impasse that was building between them and both Meg and Atticus are happy with Andy moving in.
Being brought up in Hong Kong, Andy has, what Meg would probably call a disorder, towards cleanliness. From growing up with the flu epidemics, Andy now cleans downs surfaces, and when he notices that Meg does not clean her hands after patting Atticus, he is nearly physically ill.
Meg applied for this home share programme so she would feel safe again. She was hoping for a young male who was quiet and kept to himself and that was exactly what she got. But as the days go by, she finds herself craving company, companionship. She wishes that Andy would talk to her more instead of locking himself away in his room almost immediately upon arriving home.
The chapters are very short, some only a couple of pages and this works to draw the attention of the reader to the differences of the two characters. Apart from the obvious age and sex, there lives could not be any more different. Ethnicity and culture, even the food they eat.
They also have different problems. Meg is lonely, the last of her family still living, and with Andy moving in, she now notices her loneliness even more. Andy is anxious about his study and exams. So anxious that he is constantly on the edge of a nervous breakdown. His mother suffered from extreme anxiety after he was born and he carries the guilt around with him, the weight of it slowly grinding him down. Meg also carries guilt. The burden of her guild comes from the accident that her sister had when they were young leaving her in a wheelchair. The tragedy is, as with many forms of guilt, both of them are carrying guilt for something they had no control over.
They also both have serious problems. One of Meg’s close friends has just died unexpectedly and Andy’s mother has been hospitalized, her anxiety out of control. Andy fearing that he will not pass his exams decides to hire somebody to sit the exams for him. Both of them are flawed and vulnerable in different ways yet neither of them are aware of the others problems.
For me the heart of this book is about the difference of cultures. You can feel the difference so clearly throughout the book. Andy refers and thinks about the myriad of differences all the time. Facts such as the size of a room, or yard. Grass on the ground, the difference of diet. Throughout the whole book Andy has this feeling of displacement.
This sentence makes his feelings clear,
“They might share blood through his auntie, but these kids with their round eyes and floppy hair were Australian in a way Andy knew he never could be”.
Cheng has given the reader two totally different but equally fleshed out and deep wonderful characters. And this is one of those books where the characters shoulder the load. The narrative is sound and interesting, but it is the two characters that make this novel so enjoyable. Well, three if you count Atticus the delightful African grey parrot.
A wonderful debut novel that is much deeper than your first think. 4.5 Stars.
Melanie Cheng is a writer and general practitioner. She was born in Adelaide, grew up in Hong Kong and now lives in Melbourne. Her debut collection of short stories, "Australia Day", won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript in 2016 and the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for fiction in 2018. "Room for a Stranger" is Cheng's debut novel.
I say this all the time but there is a wonderful article from The Guardian talking to Cheng here - https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/apr/28/melanie-cheng-you-can-never-represent-a-whole-community-its-ridiculous-to-ask-a-writer-to-do-that