Book review of Memory Piece by Lisa Ko

Books

In her first novel since her National Book Award-longlisted debut, The Leavers, Lisa Ko explores memory, art, technology and consumption through the eyes of three childhood best friends. Jackie, Ellen and Giselle meet at Chinese school in suburban New Jersey in the 1980s. Though they come from different backgrounds and have divergent interests, they’re drawn together by a shared desire to make something more—or different—of their lives. Moving from the dot-com era and early tech culture of the 1990s to a highly militarized vision of New York City in the 2040s, Memory Piece traces the ways the three women’s lives converge and diverge.

Giselle turns to art, launching her career with an experimental performance piece in which she lives for a year in a hidden room in a mall. As she becomes more immersed in the art world, she begins to question her motives and desires, floundering through a life that is sometimes more display than substance. Jackie gets caught up in the early days of the internet, working for a tech startup by day and developing her own radical projects by night. Ellen becomes an activist in college, and devotes her life to community organizing and fighting against the gentrification threatening her home. 

The novel’s three distinct sections drive home just how differently Giselle, Jackie and Ellen engage with and react to the world—and each other—as everything changes around them. Jackie’s section is full of frenetic energy, while Giselle’s is dreamy and quiet: Her voice comes through at a remove, as if she’s narrating from a distance. Ellen’s section is poignant with loss and nostalgia. Throughout, Ko’s prose is beautiful and sharp, and her ability to shapeshift through a range of tones makes the novel a pleasure to read.

A bittersweet wistfulness permeates the whole of Memory Piece. Though Giselle, Jackie and Ellen remain important to one another throughout their lives, there is a separateness to each of the novel’s sections that gives it a meandering and melancholy feel. This is a compelling, often chilling and beautifully observant novel about what connects us to, and disconnects us from, each other.

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