Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 19, 2019

Room for a Stranger, by Melanie Cheng

I’ve been thinking all day about how to write a review of this book.  Melanie Cheng is an award-winning author, and her debut novel Room for a Stranger, has been very widely praised, but although I found it mildly enjoyable, I’m not at all sure that it merits being termed a modern masterpiece

Somewhere in the plethora of reviews about the book, I saw (but now can’t find) something about it being an example of the ‘new sincerity movement’, a repudiation, it seems, of postmodernism and irony.  It is certainly written in serviceable prose, with a straightforward linear plot with just occasional flashbacks, narrated by the two main protagonists, who come from cross-cultural environments but share a deep-seated loneliness.

The story is set in ordinary suburban Melbourne, about 10km from the CBD—which puts it squarely among some now very expensive real estate.   Probably not Albert Park since there are cartoonish bungalows rather than elegant terraces, perhaps out west somewhere, like Coburg or Maribyrnong or Maidstone where houses sell for $800,000+.  As sole inheritor of her parents’ once humble estate, the central character 75-year-old Meg Hughes is almost certainly asset-rich and could downsize to a more manageable apartment, unit or townhouse and still have money left over to live a little.  But she doesn’t do this because she is inhibited by fear of change, she has let inertia take over her life and she is paralysed by lifelong shyness.  What finally prompts her to take a young international student into her home is a visit from a prowler.  Bizarrely, she thinks that taking in a complete stranger from another culture will make her feel safer.  And she thinks she would like the company.

(I know that a reader has to accept the book that’s been written, but I can’t help thinking how interesting this book might have been if Meg had opened up her home to one of the growing numbers of homeless older women. Or the scruffy but likeable couple I met yesterday when I called in at Launch Housing with a question.  Dull respectability meets Nonconformist Attitude! I think I would like somebody to write such a book).

Anyway…

Since the writing is nothing special, this kind of character-driven novel depends entirely on the reader becoming invested in these two characters, and that is the problem that I have.  I think readers will judge it differently depending on their age group.   Millennials and Generation X who perhaps regard anyone over 60 as elderly and past-their-use-by date may find the dawn of a May-September cross-cultural friendship authentic and heart-warming, but I think the novel paints a distorted and very melancholy picture of an older unmarried woman.  Having only very recently been reading Caroline Lodge’s Older Women in Literature project at the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative I am more conscious of the way older women are portrayed, and Meg Hughes as a pathetic and lonely old women doesn’t fit my experience of women in her age group at all.  It won’t surprise anyone my age that I have more friends living alone than in coupledom: in our age cohort there are plenty of women who’ve never married, or are divorced or widowed.  If these women have children, these adult children are often living and working far away, some of them permanently overseas.  But my friends, nearly all of them older than me and some in their 80s and 90s, would be aghast at Cheng’s portrait of Meg Hughes, who at only 75 gives up on life.  No volunteering or pensioner travel or U3A classes or competitive croquet for her!  She loves reading, but she doesn’t even hang out at her library or have any virtual bookworm friends.

(BTW please don’t make the mistake of thinking that all my friends are well-educated middle-class career women with comfortable superannuation funds. That’s not the case at all.)

It was in this frame of mind that I had to keep reminding myself that what might seem like an authentic portrait of a much older woman —because people can become socially isolated when they become frail and housebound—is a character who is only 75.  As Meg potters around her grubby kitchen in her shabby clothes and slippers, not bothering to cook for herself or to keep up the garden, with a social life that consists of a weekly coffee with a couple of women, (one of whom she doesn’t even much like), my rebellious thoughts kept surfacing.  She’s a baby boomer, who grew up in an era of Australian prosperity, and came of age amid grassroots feminist movements and the Whitlam reforms that (amongst other things) made tertiary education possible for women who’d been denied it.   Even when she makes a bit of an effort in the kitchen for Andy, she dishes up unpalatable meals that predate the 1960s Margaret Fulton revolution in domestic cooking.  Why has all this change passed her by?

It’s because Meg is crippled by a lack of self-worth, and has been all her life.  And worse than that, because she blamed herself for her sister’s accident, she has devoted her life to being the carer for her family.  For the care of her disabled sister, and responsibility for her ageing parents until they died.  Again, I know that a reader has to accept the book that’s been written but I feel this could have been an infinitely more realistic book if it had given some hint of the structural reasons why Meg has so categorically failed to take advantage of the social changes of her era.  Like a 19th century spinster in a sexist 20th century family, Meg has been assigned a role that’s crippled her life because until recently there was no National Disability Support Scheme (NDIS), and no one was caring for the carer.

There is a lot more than this to think about in Room for a Stranger.  Like many a debut novelist, Cheng tackles many issues: suburban loneliness, casual and not-so-casual racism, mental health, the clash between the expectations of international students and the reality of being treated like an independent adult, and unreasonable parental ambitions for their children.

But there are plenty of other reviews… see the list at Text Publishing’s page.

PS I can’t speak for any of the other universities, but my alma mater has been running a program for international students for years.  It’s called Welcome to Melbourne, and it pairs alumni with young students.   We have participated in this program, which begins with a meeting at the university, and then lunch or dinner in the alumnae’s homes.  We went on to introduce our Vietnamese student to Melbourne’s tourist attractions and cultural sites, to host an ironic Easter Egg hunt and two kinds of ‘Aussie Christmas’ (i.e. the indoor turkey and pudd version at my place, but also the surf’n’turf outdoor variety at my brother-in-law’s place).  We went to his graduation in lieu of his parents, and that photo has pride of place in my family room.  We are still in contact via Facebook and LOL I’m occasionally called up on for advice in matters of the heart.  Our second experience didn’t last as long, but that’s because the student managed to bring his girlfriend to Australia too!

Author: Melanie Cheng
Title: Room for a Stranger
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2019, 271 pages
ISBN: 9781925773545
Source: Personal library, $29.99

 


Responses

  1. Well I beg to disagree again. I really liked Room for a Stranger”.Although, like you, I did take offence at the fact that Meg was portrayed as an old woman at just 75. I spoke to Melanie Cheng at the Byron Writers Festival in August and put this quibble to her.She told me this character is based on an aunt of hers who was a carer all her life and this made her become old before her time.Melanie is a doctor practising in the western suburbs and I think this
    Iife experience enhances her writing. This novel led me back to her earlier book of short stories “Australia Day” in which she puts a spotlight on many issues that she would have witnessed in her work. It’s a treasure – best stories I’ve read on this part of the world since Helen Garner.

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    • Hi Bernadette, thanks for sharing this info from Byron:)
      I hope I’ve made it clear that I know I’m well out of step on this one, and (as I always try to do when I’m not keen on a book) I’ve provided links to opinions that differ from mine).
      I did think that the character of Meg probably was based on someone from Cheng’s experience (though, gosh, I hope her aunt hasn’t read this unflattering portrait of herself!) but it doesn’t alter how I (and you) responded to it. Once you start noticing the way older women are represented in literature, it becomes harder to ignore, and I find myself irritated by the demands for our literature to be more diverse, but that doesn’t extend to diversity among older people. I also noticed that all the white people (even Meg, wondering if the boy speaks any English, when he’s a student at university!) are racist, and I don’t like that much either.

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  2. Great review! This book is next on my reading list.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Lisa,

    Thanks for your thoughts on Melanie’s debut novel. I enjoy reading your reviews and have often ‘discovered’ books through your recommendations.

    I felt differently about Melanie’s book, in a couple of ways.
    Firstly I found the character of Meg quite plausible, though as you say not typical of many women in their mid 70’s. I’ve met women like Meg in my personal life and in my work who are constrained by circumstances, personality, past trauma etc. I found Meg a very interesting character as a result of her limitations.
    I also thought Melanie’s writing was actually wonderfully smooth and clear. I think it’s deceptively skilful prose. As you read, the words disappear – you’re not distracted by frills or extravagant description – and this makes the story really shine.

    Funny how we all experience books in such different ways. I guess that’s why there are so many books in the world to suit all our different tastes!

    Fiona

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, and thank you for sharing your thoughts, and *chuckle* I’m rather pleased that disagreeing with me on this one has prompted you to comment:)
      Being very careful what I say here so as not to identify anyone, I have also known some women whose lives were constrained in a not dissimilar way, but though it took a while, they blossomed once they were freed from those constraints. (This is how I know about selling the once humble home to downsize and the possibilities that arise from the proceeds!) But Meg seems to venture forth and then retreat from every opportunity that comes along.
      #BeingCarefulHereTooAboutSpoilers But what troubles me most about Meg is her reaction to a scare. That is the reaction of someone who has given up on life.

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  4. Chalk me up as a fan of this book. I thought it was deceptively light (I basically ate it up in one long sitting) but there were issues bubbling away underneath about racism and attitudes to the elderly and the pressures put in young people to succeed and I laughed at a lot of scenes and comments (ie. that you can’t get served in a shop without having an entire conversation, that Australians always look about 10 to 20 years older than they really are because of sun damage etc etc) and for all those reasons I really loved being immersed in the lives of those two people. Interestingly, I have met several women in their 70s who are old before their time because they’ve had to devote themselves to caring for others and their worlds have been reduced to not much more than four walls, so I didn’t feel that the character here was a caricature or unrealistic. Perhaps you might like Benjamin Myers The Offing better? It is also about an unlikely friendship between an older woman and a teenage boy and it is utterly delightful. The woman in that story is very worldly wise and strong and independent and might chime with you more…?

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    • LOL Kim, I read your review and thought, Ha! Kim likes the odd dose of sincerity and delightfulness to offset all those scary true crime books she reads!
      No, seriously, I do value your opinion, but I have to disagree with you (and the rest of the book world) on this one.

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      • LOL. You’re probably right about the need for heart-warming stories to counterbalance my preference for darker stuff.

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  5. I cringe when I see labels like modern masterpiece just because the book deals with topical issues. It’s always an overstatement.

    I understand your reservations about the way an older person is portrayed I know plenty whose lives are full and active. Sadly there are people like Meg who don’t seem to engage with the world at all despite all the opportunities around like U3a

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    • To me, that kind of hyperbole just means that the reviewer isn’t very widely read. No one who’s read any of the great works of literature could possibly regard this as a masterpiece, even if they really like it.

      Like

  6. As always your review ignites an important conversation. I have always thought Australia very ageist and remember at the age of 26yrs feeling it which may say more about me than the culture though I doubt it. As a three quarter century woman am well aware of being categorised. Even yesterday a woman my daughter’s age thought I may like to be her adopted mother. No No No. And the hyperbole that goes with far too much of modern literature is another example of the fakery that we seem to accept willingly. Ah well.

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    • Exactly. And if ever there was a generation of women who were not going to cop it lightly, it’s us!

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  7. You don’t say how old Cheng is. I’ve read other books where 70 is equated with decrepitude and it is just not the case, not normally anyway. I’ll still be working at that age (In a couple of years) and I am surrounded by single, not very well off women (Milly and her sisters) who are doing degrees, experimenting with cooking, etc, etc. And yes “modern masterpiece” is ridiculous (I reckon there have been three this century).

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    • I don’t know how old she is, but yes, 70 is the new 50 isn’t it?

      Like

  8. I’ve been following your site for a while but never commented, however as an older (early 60’s) single not-wealthy woman bookworm who has just uprooted and moved to a regional area in NSW I have just put a reserve on this book at the local (excellent) library and will let you know what I think once I’ve managed to read it!

    As someone who was constrained by caring for my elderly father with dementia for many years your point about the lack of the NDIS and lack of anyone caring for the carers is very valid.

    Thanks for a blog that has often given me a new book to put on my “to read” list!

    Like

    • Hello Sue, how nice it is to have tempted you into commenting:)
      I think you will be pleased to hear that the review I’ve read in The Australian of Charlotte Wood’s new one The Weekend paints a picture of some very feisty older women… as our Baby Boomer authors get a few grey hairs, I think we will see the depiction of older women change a lot.
      Though to be truthful, Wood doesn’t seem to have any grey hairs and she isn’t 60 yet. But still! if she’s like me she’s got friends who are both older and younger, she will know that we’re not old until we’re old!!
      When my father had dementia I did an online course at the Wicking Institute at the University of Tasmania, and learned a lot that was so useful, I can’t recommend it enough for anyone in the same situation. One of the things they stressed, and it was the same at a day course I did on Communicating with People who have Dementia with Alzheimer’s Victoria, was that it is essential to care for the carer. No matter how much you love them, you need to care for yourself as well. There were times when I was driving home from visiting my dad and had to pull into a nearby park to have a good cry. So I bought a small sketch pad and some pencils, and I started sketching the trees while I listened to some nice music for half an hour or so, and then I was ready to go home and do it all again the next day.
      We have made a lot of progress in regard to women’s issues, but I get really frustrated by the things young feminists fuss about yet pay no attention to the way women always have, and still seem to be, the ones who are responsible for being the carers when government services are inadequate.

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      • I couldn’t agree more with what you say Lisa but it was when I was in my 30’s and there were no courses or any kind of help or advice for carers back then – nor were there any palliative care services for my mother when she died in my early 20’s (my father was much older than my mother).

        So I experienced very young the absence of any kind of support services for those caring for a dying family member and later, supporting a family member with dementia. It seems hard to believe now that there was absolutely no help in place – and interesting how it was almost always the daughter who stayed behind to do the caring.. (although the wonderful show Mother and Son years ago showed a son in that position).

        I have family in Melbourne and it is my favourite city but alas I cannot afford it – however I’m in a large regional centre now with thank goodness a wonderful library and lots of literary, art and music events happening.

        Have been dipping into your blog for ages and it’s given me some great reads so keep up the good work! Cheers, Sue.

        Like

        • Thank you, it’s lovely to share our thoughts about books (and life!) like this:)
          I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been, your loved ones were lucky to have you but we really ought to do better as a society so that the burden is shared.
          Melbourne is lovely, but you know, it took me a whole hour to get to Hawthorn this evening to hear Katherine Johnson talk about Pari Savages. It would normally only take about 35 minutes, but things are so difficult at the moment with all the roadworks everywhere. (I know, we shouldn’t complain now that we are finally getting some infrastructure built, but it is frustrating).
          Cheers to you too Lisa

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  9. An old woman at just 75 … my late mother died just before her 77th birthday. Poor health had her housebound before age 75, poor finance (compounded by disastrous marriages) restricted her choices. Two of my siblings (who lived close by) looked out for her (and, increasingly, looked after her) but she was in many ways an old woman not long after turning 70. OTOH, I have a friend just six months older than my mother. My friend is now 86 and fully engaged in life. Definitely not an old woman. But I’ve digressed. I think I will read this book …

    Like

    • My grandmother died in her 70s too, and as I remember her from my childhood, she seemed like an old woman in the 1950s when she was not even thirty.
      I think that Cheng is concerned to make the case that loneliness contributes to ageing, so her character has ceased to care for herself and she has let go the house and garden as if it no longer matters.
      I’ll be interested to see what you think:)

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I finally read this and found it the sort of “light easy reading” book that I might read after I’ve had an anaesthetic and surgery and don’t want to concentrate too much!

    I didn’t think that a woman as scared as the main character would happily take in a young male (foreign) student whom she hadn’t even met. Surely she would find this frightening? Wouldn’t she be more likely to take in a woman boarder, someone closer to her age? If she could cope with someone else sharing her home at all…

    Also the sudden change from slopping about in slippers to wearing bright coloured clothes, going out with friends and then contemplating a trip away with a man she’s met – why? Just because she’s taken in a boarder? How does this work?

    The student never came alive for me, I didn’t feel I got to know his character at all. In all I found it an “easy read” light book with a highly unlikely story line. Not something I would ever want to read again!

    Like

    • LOL You are harder on it than I am.
      But you are right, this woman made a lot of changes in her life, and the young man as catalyst isn’t really credible.

      Like


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