Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If you’re thinking about reading this book, the first thing I recommend is that you check out either this Spotify playlist (created by your humble reviewer), and/or this YouTube one and familiarize yourself with some of the songs featured in the novel. In fact, you should probably do that even if you’re not going to read the book because it’s a very good soundtrack.
Anyway, the reason for the homework is that Ms Moreno-Garcia’s coming of age fantasy novel is set in part against the mixtape-and-vinyl music scene in the 80s. The book doesn’t require a comprehensive knowledge of the songs mentioned within (and you can tell from the length of the playlists that there is a lot of music featured), but certain scenes will make more sense if you’re familiar with key tracks. Being familiar with “En Algun Lugar” by Duncan Dhu, for example, will give a better insight into protagonist Meche’s state of mind during the 80s flashback sequences that take up half the novel. Knowing the melody and lyrics of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” will speak volumes about the relationship between Meche’s parents and crystalize a particular scene late in the novel. That sort of thing.
Because music in the book isn’t just a bunch of pop cultural references tossed in to give Meche a memorable quirk, it informs the book’s magical element. Once Meche learns she can use records and dance and music to cast spells, she draws her two outcast friends Daniela and Sebastian into a growing obsession with overcoming their teenage difficulties. This arc is the basis for the 80s sequences, all of which inform and tie into the present (or recent past I suppose, as it’s set in 2009) where Meche finally returns to Mexico City after a long absence to attend to her father’s funeral. It’s worth noting that neither the 1988-89 nor the 2009 segments are necessarily stronger than the other. Sometimes in split timeline novels one or the other will be more interesting which gives the other a filler quality where the reader is impatiently waiting to get back to “the good part.” Not so with Signal to Noise.
The interesting thing Ms Moreno-Garcia does is to not twin the two timelines too closely. They play off each other, wrap around each other and give teasers about events yet to come in each without being sort of annoyingly obvious parallels. They’re like notes in a pleasant chord in that way, complimenting each other without simply increasing the noise.
What I particularly admired about this book is how unafraid the author is to make her characters feel real, flawed, frustratingly human. Meche is a difficult protagonist, and that’s okay. She’s kind of mean, lacks a certain self-awareness, but is also not so much a fool that she blithely dips into cruelty nor is stupidly blind to her own personality. It’s a complex take on not just a teenager but—with shades of nuance—an adult who is still haunted by her adolescence as well. It rings really true and it’s the kind of characterization that takes a whole novel to play out. It doesn’t mean at times it’s not cringe-inducing to see Meche’s darker side manifest or her struggle to connect in ways that might seem obvious to readers. But it ends up feeling exceptionally genuine: the package is dressed so precisely with her family life, upbringing, experiences, raw personality, and a wonderful progression from the beginning of the novel to the end—as well as from the chronological beginning to the end. It’s a character you don’t have to fall in love with to be fascinated with, that doesn’t need to inspire you in order to charm you.
Most of the secondary characters are also craftily-drawn. Sebastian in particular is perhaps more relatable than Meche, but it’s a cleverly handled mild subversion of some common tropes to see the role he ends up playing in the story. Even Daniela who serves a particular plot purpose also manages to be a fully-formed character by the time the novel draws to a close.
A handful of minor characters might have benefitted from a touch more development: Dolores, Meche’s grandmother, is maybe a little unclear in her motive for how much or how little guidance she offers on the subject of magic; Isadora—Sebastian’s teenage crush—is a little lacking in dimension; Natalia, Meche’s mom, doesn’t quite make the full transition from flashback to 2009 timeline versions. But overall there is very little to complain about here.
The book is sad and delightful and original and familiar and painful and wonderful all at once. Like any good mixtape it has rises and falls and packs a lifetime’s worth of emotion into a relatively small package. I really loved this book, fell hard for the pitch-perfect ending, and was captivated by the often gorgeous prose throughout. I highly recommend this book even to non-music-lovers. And if you were a part of the mixtape-making 80s and early 90s, or ever had a special relationship with just a few friends, this is really going to be your jam. Do yourself a favor and put this on top of your to-read list.
Just make sure to have a set of headphones handy.