Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Signal to Noise

silviamorenogarcia-signaltonoiseMexico City, 1988: Long before iTunes or MP3s, you said “I love you” with a mixtape.

Meche, awkward and fifteen, has two equally unhip friends – Sebastian and Daniela – and a whole lot of vinyl records to keep her company. When she discovers how to cast spells using music, the future looks brighter for the trio. The three friends will piece together their broken families, change their status as nonentities,and maybe even find love…

Mexico City, 2009: Two decades after abandoning the metropolis, Meche returns alone for her estranged father’s funeral.

It’s hard enough to cope with her family, but then she runs into Sebastian, reviving memories from a childhood she thought she buried a long time ago. What really happened back then? What precipitated the bitter falling out with her father? Is there any magic left?

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Signal to Noise was one of my anticipated reads for the first half of 2015. The concept of the speculative elements in the form of magic fuelled by music was cool and the setting, both temporal and physical, were intriguing. The Eighties was an interesting time in history and though we often mock the stylistic choices of Eighties music stars, it’s undeniable that they also produced some fantastic classics. I was completely unfamiliar with Mexico City and true Mexican culture only having seen the Hollywood representations of both on TV and I doubt these are completely accurate. So I was interested to learn more about both through Moreno-Garcia’s debut novel. And while I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the novel and much of the story after finishing it I was largely left with a bit of a meh feeling. I wanted to love this novel so much more than I did and it’s hard to pinpoint why I didn’t. I just didn’t connect to it very strongly and I spent just as much time being annoyed with Meche, the main character, as I did rooting for her. 

Meche is a complicated character. We meet her both as a teen with a troubled home life and as a grown-up woman who has escaped her less-than-happy youth and has made a life for herself on the other side of the world far away from her family. I found Meche-the-adult easier to relate to than Meche-the-teen, though as an adult she still has the rough traits that make her less than sympathetic as a teen. Given her situation at home, with a demanding and distant mother and a father who Meche worships, but who finds himself disillusioned with the life he’s found himself living, it’s no surprise that Meche is a less-than-happy teen, yet there is a darkness and ruthlessness to Meche that I found hard to swallow. The way she treats her best (and only) friends is painful to see and I just wanted to shake her out of it. In fact, I liked Sebastian and Daniela far better than I did Meche, which was unfortunate since Meche is the main viewpoint character.

However ambivalent I felt about Meche though, she did feel like a very honest portrayal of what it means to be a teen girl and I found Moreno-Garcia’s depiction of teens and their inner life very real. The awkward tension between Meche and Sebos’ close, comfortable friendship and the possibility of that friendship developing into more was exquisitely drawn. I loved how both of them wrestle with the question if they even want it to become more and that it is Sebastian who is so certain of his feelings. They also show that those we love best are also the ones we can hurt the most. I liked how Moreno-Garcia moved the resolution for this situation from the past to the present timeline and had Meche not only come to terms with her unresolved feelings for Sebastian, but also make peace with Daniela and sort out her issues with her parents and her father in particular.

All of this is set against the backdrop of Mexico City, which paradoxically didn’t feel like one of the biggest, most-densely populated cities of the world, but felt like a busy, mid-sized town, with a strong sense of community. I also liked the different liturgical traditions. I’m familiar with Catholic services here in the Netherlands, yet I’d never heard of the tradition of saying novenas for the departed. I’m used to a wake and a mass and that’s it. Also, the food! Signal to Noise has lots of food in it and it all sounds delicious. It’s weird, because I usually don’t notice food that much in books, but in this case I did, perhaps more than warranted. I wonder whether that was because it was set in a (culinary) culture I’m largely unfamiliar with or because I was just hungry when reading it or due to other reasons.

Signal to Noise is filled with music; Meche’s father is a radio DJ and is working on a book about music history, Meche is just about fused to her headphones, and of course music is the main source of magic in the book. I’m a child of the  90s, so in my student days we had tons of bad Eighties-themed parties and I was familiar with much of the English-language songs, though the Spanish-language bands were unfamiliar. Luckily Moreno-Garcia created a playlist of the most important songs in the book so even those unfamiliar with any of them could get a feel for the music. I loved the love of music that Meche exuded and the bond this provides between her father and her. I also liked that the music the trio use to create magic often reflects not just the stated desire they put into the spell, but also the true intent in their hearts. I also enjoyed that the book’s magic is never a truly neutral force, there always seems to be a malign edge to it.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s debut novel Signal to Noise is one that left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was a bit disappointed with the book, because I’d wanted to love it so much and I didn’t, not as much as I wanted. Yet on the other hand, I was quite entertained by the book, enough so that I’ve managed to write over a thousand words of review on it, which is on the long side even for me. Signal to Noise is a very well-written, literary fantasy dealing with growing up and forgiving others for not being who we want or need them to be. While the book didn’t work for me one hundred percent, I think that for those who do connect strongly to Meche this will be a killer read and I’m certainly glad to have read it.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.