Review: Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
It’s 1989 in Mexico City and a familiar drama is playing out. Teenagers Meche, Sebastian and Daniela are uncool outsiders looking in, united by their outsider status more than common interests. Brusque, combative Meche shares a love of music with her father, her records helping her endure all the problems in her life. Sebastian’s tastes tend to the literary and he hopes one day to escape his poverty and see Europe. Daniela has been pampered through childhood and is relentlessly girlish and passive, though she is not alone in tending to accede to Meche’s wishes. The latter is the trio’s natural leader so when she wonders if music could provide a gateway to the folk magic of her grandmother’s stories, her friends agree to help her cast spells with songs.
It’s 2009 in Mexico City and a familiar drama is playing out. Meche is returning to a home she has not seen in years, preparing to bury her estranged father. She must confront the ghosts of her past: not only processing her father’s death and sorting through the records and diaries he left behind but also what has lain between her and her childhood friends for twenty years.
The power of three has a long history in tales of folk magic, just as teenagers alienated from their peers or struggling with home life and young adults dealing with the aftermath of a parent’s death are established dramas. Even music-as-magic has notable pedigree. But then, mixtapes are typically composed of a thoughtfully selected series of choice cuts; some familiar to the mixtape’s intended audience and some new; perhaps too some known to be cherished or found rich with meaning. So too this novel.
In contrast to mixtapes, Signal To Noise doesn’t rely on referencing songs and musicians to provide its emotional texture. Its characters are full of life, with all the contradictory twists and turns life implies. Meche in particular is a pleasure to follow: she is poor at acknowledging her feelings, most of all to herself, and yet there they are on the page, spoken in her actions and decisions. She is a difficult person but one who is easy to like. As Signal To Noise explores its story, switching between 1989 and 2009, we slowly explore these characters and all the small moments that come to constitute a shared personal history.
It’s perhaps unfair to pick at threads that are only a little loose to begin with in this, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s first novel. Still, there is some artifice to the drip-feed of reveals in the 2009 chapters that allows them to continue in step with the 1989 chapters without tipping the tale’s hand. And while it’s not a fault of the novel itself, some readers might find themselves disappointed that a Solaris novel is very light on genre, and with a few adjustments at key junctures could have proceeded without any magic whatsoever.
I don’t care for such criticisms myself: friendship and love among those trying to find their place in the world, conjuring what magic they can to facilitate that and living with the consequences down the years is plenty enough. Further, to criticise the light touch that the fantastic brings to Signal To Noise would be to miss the thematic, rather than plot, significance of magic.
While tastes will always differ, I hope others will give Signal To Noise a chance. It is a novel which doesn’t set out to shake the world but rather to present something that is personal and thoughtful; emotional but sometimes guarded. In this, it is much like the box of mixtapes I’ll always keep.