Signal To Noise
by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This is as much a coming-of-age tale as it is a fantasy about magic, but it succeeds at both. However, it is so good at the former that the latter element could be removed without harming the plot. Set in Mexico City in two different time periods, 1988/89 and 2009, it tells the story of Mercedes Vega, nicknamed Meche, along with her childhood friends Sebastian and Daniela, as well as the turbulent life of her parents. Meche is obsessed with music, a passion she inherited from her father, a frustrated musician and songwriter who had to settle for being a radio DJ. It is remarkable that she established such a staunch friendship with Sebastian, who cared little for music, his passion being books. The 2009 scenes have Meche returning to Mexico City from her home in Norway for the funeral of her father, whom she had not seen in twenty years.
Thomas Wolfe once declared "You can't go home again," but most of us realize that is only true to a certain extent. Wolfe meant that you and home will have changed in the intervening years, it's almost as if a different person is experiencing it, the only continuity being memory. This is the author's first novel, and although also the first of her work I have read, I expected the fantasy element to be stronger, maybe verging toward horror, since a lot of her earlier short stories seem to be in that genre. Meche had grown up hearing stories of magic from her grandmother, convinced that it was real. But how could she manifest it? Perhaps if her grandmother had been more forthcoming Meche would have been able to control it more. As it is, she learns each person who wants to cast a spell must have an object of power, something that means a lot to them and speaks to their spirit. In Meche's case, it is inevitable that object would be a record album. She had accepted the portability of a Walkman in her teens, and an iPod later, but preferred vinyl. She also realized a record conformed to the 'circle of power' of a witches coven, which she forms with her two friends to control elements of their life. Meche is also good at math, later becoming a computer programmer. She understood the relation of musical notes to mathematical notations, as well as how both conformed to the incantations of a magic spell.
As I said earlier, the fantasy element is only peripheral to the plot. Otherwise, it's very similar to any story of teenagers who feel like outsiders, not part of the 'in' crowd. A lot of us have experienced the same type of angst, feelings of being misunderstood, or not appreciated by parents or the 'cool' kids. Some of us have also had to experience family disintegration, either as children or adults. Meche is the main protagonist, but this is written in third person so we also get to know the internal struggles of other characters. I empathized most with Sebastian, probably because I'm also male and experienced a lot of what he had to endure. I came to care for Meche as well, even though she is not sympathetic. She's selfish and controlling, only concerned with her own needs and ignorant of (or unwilling to acknowledge) how her actions have hurt others. Her major fault was in not recognizing the thing she needed most when it had been staring her in the face for years. It is possible she finally realizes her mistakes, but is that enough for her to change for the better?
Update: Signal to Noise has received nominations for four different awards; Locus (Best 1st Novel), Aurora (Canada, Best Novel), Sunburst (Canada, Adult Novel) and British Fantasy (Best Fantasy Novel).
Recommended for most, even if fantasy or magic is not your preference. The main thing is it's a compelling story with vivid and relatable characters. Plus lots of great music references. If this was a movie I would expect an end credit sequence telling us what happened to the characters later. For Meche, I wonder if she was able to finish and publish the book on Mexican pop music her father had worked on for years. Ms. Moreno-Garcia is now on my radar, and I suspect her upcoming vampire novel will be as much a human drama as it is horror. [EDIT: Was I ever right about that; Certain Dark Things is a dark and brooding character study of a vampire and the human who falls in love with her.]
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