Description from the publisher’s site, because I am lazy:
Mexico 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. With help from this newfound magic, the three friends will piece together their broken families, change their status as non-entities, and maybe even find love…
Mexico City, 2009: Two decades after abandoning the metropolis, Meche returns for her estranged father’s funeral. It’s hard enough to cope with her family, but then she runs into Sebastian, and it revives memories from her childhood she thought she buried a long time ago. What really happened back then? What precipitated the bitter falling out with her father? And, is there any magic left?
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s debut novel, Signal to Noise, is hard to categorize (pretty much every review I read talked about this). It’s got magic, so we’re somewhere in fantasy. It’s got a more-or-less contemporary setting, Mexico City in 1988/89 and 2009, but to call it “urban fantasy” would be misleading–no battling supernatural creatures here. I’d call it a descendant of Latin American magical realism, because the magic appears in a largely realistic setting, but the tone and story are quite different: Signal to Noise doesn’t deal with politics or national history, but with personal history; it doesn’t engage myth or legend. It’s really a coming of age story in which, comfortingly or distressingly, the characters don’t finish growing up until their mid-thirties, in the 2009 sections of the book. The magic is integral to Moreno-Garcia’s story, but you can imagine a slightly different version that expressed the teenagers’ struggle to gain some power and control in their lives in a straightforwardly realistic way.
The magic in this book is worked through the records 15-year-old Meche and her friends play on her portable turn-table, Meche’s feelings expressed by the songs playing on her Walkman and the mix-tapes she makes for her friends Sebastian and Daniela. [If you were a teen in the 80s, like me, this book is likely to evoke some nostalgia. It also sent me scrambling to check out the Spanish-language artists and songs I didn’t recognize.] Music has also been the link between Meche and her father, a failed musician and DJ who is working on a history of Latin American music.
We know from the opening scene–which shows grown-up Meche returning to Mexico City for her father’s funeral, having seen neither him nor her friends in 20 years–that something in the past went badly wrong. As the book cuts between the “present” of 2009 to the past, we gradually learn how Meche’s magic-using went badly astray, and why she “cut her love the same way the executioner might chop a head: with a single, accurate swing.” The question now is whether she can splice the tape of her life back together (Moreno-Garcia has a deft hand with metaphor), can repair any of the relationships she severed years before.
This is, ultimately a story about love–friendship, family bonds, and, yes, romance–and the often misguided but sometimes noble things we do in its name. It’s fitting, then, that pop music is the vehicle for its magic. As I type this, I realize that Signal to Noise reminds me a little of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, another book about a music-lover coming to terms with the past and figuring out what and with whom true love is. Not all of Meche’s mistakes can be put right: her father is gone, her regret at the rift between them too late. But some of them can.
My biggest complaint about the book is that I don’t think it balanced the two timelines as effectively as it might have. The 80s teenage story sometimes dragged–in part because it’s so realistic–aside from, you know, the magic–and I got tired of their moping and fights. And the 2009 parts of the story, where Meche has to deal with the fall-out from her past, moved too quickly for a fully satisfying reckoning with her own past behavior. It was more a symbolic gesture towards resolution than a really worked-out one. I liked what there was; I just wanted more. This strikes me as a typical first novel kind of problem, and didn’t keep me from very much enjoying the book.