Review: Signal to Noise, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Before I tell you about Signal to Noise, go have a listen to this playlist of the songs and artists mentioned in the book. It’s a wonderful mix of everything from jazz standards to treacly mid-80s Mexican pop. Perfect.

Cover of Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-GarciaNow. The book. Signal to Noise is set in Mexico City in both 1988/89 and 2009. As a teenager, Meche is obsessed with music, a behavior she picked up from her father, an alcoholic failed musician and would-be writer. Her best friends are Sebastian, a tall and awkward bookworm, and Daniela, who dresses like a doll and would rather play with her Easy-Bake Oven. First Meche, then her friends, discover that they have the ability to do magic: hexes, glamours, and spells to get them what they’ve always dreamt of. But, as these things so often do, things go much differently than they hoped.

It’s a sweet book that functions as a time capsule of sorts, though I found it hard to get into initially. Meche is our primary POV character and she’s nothing but rough edges and defense mechanisms for most of the book. She’s as angry and self-isolating at fifteen as she is at 35. I can picture her so vividly that I cringe in recognition of myself in both her vulnerability and arrogance. (Her musical taste, however, is impeccable.)

In fact, all of the kids in the book speak and act realistically, even separated from me by age and culture. Feeling like an outcast, feeling like you deserve better that what you get and better than you’re treated, that’s part and parcel of being a teenager, right? (Say yes, make teen!me feel better.) We know from the beginning of the novel that Meche’s fallen out of touch with nearly everyone: her father, her friends, her family. It isn’t until three-quarters of the way through the book that we find out why, though.

Going back to my initial disconnect with the book, part of what made the teenagers feel real–and makes the book such a great work–is how frustratingly opaque they are! Motivations, emotions, rationalizations; they’re all far more obvious to the reader than to the characters. Meche only catches on to what that long-ago experience meant to her decades after the fact, and even then it takes Sebastian making explicit what it meant to him before she can.

Though it will probably be shelved as fantasy or magical realism, I think the best part of the book is how the magic feels incidental. The trio’s ability to cast spells isn’t anywhere near as important as their relationships to each other and their understanding of each other. But there’s a thread of history of magic that runs through the book, that links Meche and her friends to an older tradition of ability in her family. It hints at a much larger world than the glimpses we see, and the book is stronger for it. I don’t feel like I’ve been peering over someone’s shoulder into a brand-new world. Instead it feels like Moreno-Garcia has peeled back a curtain that lets me see what’s been hiding in this one all along.

Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia will be available 10 February 2015 from Solaris Books. I received an advance copy for review from NetGalley.

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