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 Signal To Noise feels like a vintage novel, in some ways; while it has one timeline in 2009, even that is a kind of historical fiction now, while the older timeline, set before this reviewer was even born, with a focus on vinyl records and landlines the only phones available.
That isn’t to say Moreno-Garcia’s novel is dated, of course, having just come out earlier this month; rather, it is to say that Signal To Noise feels very much of the time it is set in, rather than the time it is written in, while of course having things to say to the present. This novel is so fixed in time that, like a Hilary Mantel novel, it will not date, not being tied to a time other than those specified for its plot. Indeed, the part of the novel set in the 1980s feels very much tied to its time; the death of vinyl in favour of cassettes, later to be replaced by other devices of course; Betamax; and the rise of a punk insurgency in music that dominated the decade. Moreno-Garcia evokes excellently the feeling of growing up in that time period, with the concerns, fashions, ideas and senses of identity and self that dominated the 1980s; her image of Mexico isn’t the one the Anglophone West is typically served, of lawlessness, gangs, drugs and corruption, but of a country like any other, with some run down and poor and some wealthy. Her modern Mexico is similarly recognisable; Signal To Noise shows the differences of wealth that exist, the divides in Mexican society and the way those divides are crossed, and the Catholicism that is so strongly a part of Mexican culture.
Mind you, Moreno-Garcia’s greatest trick is not this evocation of Mexico, either past or more recently; Signal To Noise is best judged through its characters, the people who move through the book, especially the trinity who form the core of the novel. Meche, Daniela and Sebastian are Moreno-Garcia’s core to the novel, Meche especially, and the relationships between them are where the emotional interest here lies; the way those relationships change, shift and morph driven by the events of 1988-9, and how those impact on the characters, and especially Meche, twenty years later once they’ve grown up (or at least aged). Moreno-Garcia doesn’t let her characters off easy, and Signal To Noise is a really punishing book in terms of making the characters suffer the consequences of their actions; like reality, the novel isn’t fair, and to this reader at least Sebastian gets off rather easy and Meche is punished rather severely for her actions by the novel, although others may see it differently. Either way, Moreno-Garcia makes the reader care deeply about what is happening to her characters, whom she puts through the ringer, both from their own actions and from those of others; it’s an impressive emotional turmoil and darkness to convey.
Signal To Noise is a very low-key novel; while magic runs through it as a constant thread, and some unknown but traumatic event, that happened in the 1980s and is revealed at the end of the novel has a huge impact on the thread of the novel that occurs in the 2000s, Moreno-Garcia could really have written this almost identically without the magic and had just as much emotional impact. This isn’t a novel of spells causing explosions and charming legions, but of low-key, small things, and that’s what the plot rests on; it’s a deeply personal novel, about individuals, not about the fate of nations or the world, and makes an interesting shift in pace from much urban fantasy; this is a purely human novel and takes place on a purely human scale. That feeling is bolstered by the way the two time periods weave together, as Moreno-Garcia alternates chapters, each section setting up the events of the next, and changing how we view what has come before; we revise our thoughts on the Meche of 1988 in light of that of 2009, but also vice versa, a balance Moreno-Garcia achieves fascinatingly.
Signal To Noise isn’t a flashy novel, or one that is particularly trying to impress you with its theatrics; it’s a very human, personal novel, a beautiful and painful story about love, loss, family, friendship, and the idea of home. If it weren’t published by Solaris, I would tip Moreno-Garcia’s novel-length debut as a potential crossover novel into the literary mainstream; but hopefully we in the genre can give it the attention it deserves.