Signal to Noise, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Cover of Signal to Noise. The title is at the top, with an image of an audio cassette tape below.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.

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7 Responses to Signal to Noise, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

  1. lawless says:

    This sounds really good! I love books with dual timelines, and this one is also not set in one of the usual (read: white and Western) places. Thanks for mentioning it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I really liked how she handled the setting, too–there is not a lot of description of place/culture, it’s just the background. Which also means it is not exoticized, it’s just taken for granted, and she doesn’t feel the need to explain it all to the reader. Culture shows up in the music they listen to, the food that’s mentioned, the funeral customs, things like that, but it’s just their lives, as it should be. AND they talk in, I guess, American teen slang, without a lot of Spanish words sprinkled in to remind us where we are, which I thought was an interesting and unusual choice for the dialogue, though not the only good way to handle it. It naturalizes their language for an English-speaking reader, the way it would feel natural to them (plus I’d guess many Mexico City teens do use some American English slang).

      • rosario001 says:

        Did you get the feeling they were speaking English at all? I’ve only just started it, but I assumed they were using Mexican slang, which was simply translated to what would have the same “feel” in the US.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          That’s what I assumed too, that it was “translation,” but there were a few times I wondered if they sometimes threw in an English word. I can’t remember now what made me think that might be the case.

  2. Sunita says:

    This sounds terrific. High Fidelity is a favorite, and for some reason I have an easier time with magic incorporated into otherwise non-fantasy-oriented non-Western books (with North American & Northern European books I prefer full-on fantasy or none). What you say about the background and culture is what I liked so much about the Michael Nava book I recently reviewed: there’s nothing exotic or look-at-me about it, it’s taken for granted. I used to read a lot more books like that but they’re scarce in romance. It’s nice to come back to them.

    Music was the tapestry of my life in my teens through 30s; there are so many concerts, albums, and individual songs that correlate with important times and emotions. But then I stopped searching out new artists and compositions and recycled the old (across all genres, pop through jazz through classical) and I really miss it. But I’m not entirely sure how to get it back. I still pick up new-to-me artists but they don’t have the same effect. I guess it’s just the aging process.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I thought she really captured that importance of music you describe: Meche always has headphones, and later earbuds. Sometimes she uses them as protection from the world, but often to express or process her feelings in a way she can’t in words. They have to find the right song for their spells to work, and it isn’t always the obvious one that captures their yearning for some particular thing.

      I’m like you; I’m much less likely now to discover new music that means much to me. I don’t listen to music as much, either (mostly the car radio). It’s partly because now we rely on a streaming service and don’t buy much music. I don’t seek out new artists but listen to old favorites.

      Another book this reminded me of was Lia Silver’s PRISONER, where the hero is a DJ–that also had a really diverse “soundtrack” that I enjoyed sampling.

    • lawless says:

      I identify with what you say in the second paragraph as well. The only new music I’ve been exposed to recently is what my daughter listened to, and with her out of the house, there’s no new input other than things friends post on LJ or Tumblr that I might listen to. I don’t usually, though.

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