Signal to Noise, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Reviewed by Stephanie Burgis. Paperback (ISBN 1781082995) Solaris Books, February 10 2015 – 272 pages.
The first thing I did when I finished reading Signal to Noise was race to author Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s website to see if she had posted a playlist for the novel. Luckily, she had–and that’s only appropriate because this book is a beautifully-written love letter to the power of music. Music pulsates through the scenes of this warm, compassionate literary fantasy novel–a nearly audible soundtrack as the lonely teens at its center learn to create their own powerful magic with the songs they love . . . and are nearly destroyed by the results of that magic.
The book begins in 2009, when spiky, angry heroine, Meche, finally returns to Mexico City for the funeral of her estranged father, the radio DJ who used to be the most important person in her world. Once she’s back in town, though, and tasked with going through the records that fill his apartment, it’s impossible for Meche to avoid the memories–and the consequences–of the year that she first lost her father along with her two best friends: the year of magic and betrayal.
Meche’s return to Mexico City frames the novel. The heart of it, though, is centered twenty years earlier, in 1989, when teenaged Meche figures out the secret of using the music she’s obsessed with–from Billy Idol to Duncan Dhu–to make real magic happen in the world. On the surface, it seems to be exactly what she and her two best friends, Sebastian and Daniela, have needed. All three of them are outcasts in their school, ignored or abused by the other teens, and sneered at by their teachers. Meche and Sebastian, the two closest friends, are twinned in their dysfunctional family situations, and in their longing to be accepted by the cooler kids. The magic they learn to create in their coven of three brings them money to buy cool clothes and revenge on their tormentors.
Like most teenagers, though, Meche and Sebastian aren’t always good at identifying their own tumultuous emotions. Meche crushes on the boy who is Sebastian’s chief tormentor; Sebastian longs to go out with the most popular girl in school. They think of each other only as the best and closest of forever-friends. So they’re both taken aback by the depth of their anger and hurt when magic carries them closer to the people they think they should want and away from each other.
Worse yet, even as Meche and Sebastian are brought into more and more emotional conflict, Meche’s already painful family situation is disintegrating around her. Her beloved father is sleeping with another woman and fantasizing about escape; her mother seems to disapprove of everything Meche does. Meche’s own bitter frustrations are unleashed in magic that grows more and more dangerous and powerful as it distances her from her friends . . . until a final emotional and magical explosion that still echoes through her life in 2009.
Signal to Noise feels like the kind of quiet but emotionally powerful literary fantasy often published in short-story form in genre magazines. It’s less common to find a story like this in novel form. As I read it, I kept thinking how well the essential story would fit in a magazine like Interzone–except, of course, for its inherent optimism. Moreno-Garcia brilliantly captures the impotent fury of a teen whose family is collapsing around her, and the emotional tumult of two teens who don’t know how to express their real emotions to each other . . . but from the very beginning, there is a sense of real hope in this novel.
Meche lost both her father and the boy she really loved back in 1989, in an emotional firestorm that was partially of her own making. Ever since then, she’s walled herself off behind shields of anger and apparent indifference. Now that she’s come back to Mexico City, though, she’s finally forced to confront her past and admit the part she played in it. When she finds that Sebastian, too, has come back, the question becomes, will this be her chance to rewrite their soundtrack? Signal to Noise is a love story in more than one sense, although it reads in no way like a romance.
Meche’s main love affair is with music. In almost every crucial scene of the book, she is listening to or recommending a real song she loves, and in every case, the songs emphasize the emotional beats of the storyline. The scenes where the coven creates magic through music–played on vinyl, of course–are filled with a genuine sense of wonder. The creation of the magic itself, in 1989, is beautifully written and compelling, even as the magic itself grows more and more frightening and out of control, in tune with Meche’s own spiraling fury and despair. Even in 2009, long after magic has left Meche’s life, the playlists on her iPod say everything about her emotional journey and the possibilities for her future.
Signal to Noise is an original, unique, and compelling début novel and a wonderful introduction to the work of Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I look forward to reading many more of her novels in the future.