Signal To Noise begins in 2009 when Meche returns to Mexico City after her father’s death, leaving behind her quiet but comfortable life in Oslo, Norway. Meche is a Mexico City native, but fled her home country and has not returned in twenty years, though for most of the book, we don’t know what drove her away for so long. However, it quickly becomes clear that it has something to do with her childhood friends Daniela and Sebastian, whom she has not spoken to since 1989. The mystery surrounding their friendship and the eventual dissolution of that friendship is fascinating, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia does an excellent job unraveling their story chapter by chapter, in alternating time periods.
The pacing of the story was excellent. Chapters are divided between the present (2009) and the past (1988-1989), during which we learn all about Meche’s and her friend’s lives as teenagers in Mexico City. Signal To Noise is important because it depicts the lives of ordinary teenagers in Mexico and shatters stereotypes about what life in Mexico is supposed to look like. Meche, Daniela, and Sebastian all come from middle-class families, though there is some wealth disparity among them — Daniela’s family being at the top and Sebastian’s at the bottom. They’re all just teenagers in a big city who love movies and music and go to a school with a mean principal and even meaner kids. I have seen some reviews criticize the story for not feeling authentic or “Mexican” enough, as if non-Mexicans have any authority on what is or is not authentic. If you don’t trust native Mexican writers to write authentic stories about Mexico, then think about why that is. Once you realize it’s because of your own prejudices, then go right ahead and dismantle them entirely.
Reading the chapters from the past, when Meche and her friends were 15 year-old was a pleasure and for most of the book I looked forward to learning more about their lives in that time period more than I cared about the 2009 story-line. However, the more I got to know Meche as a teen and saw the events in her life that shaped the woman she would eventually become, I naturally began to care about her present life and her future. Will she ever mend the relationships she had with Daniela, Sebastian, and her mother? Do Meche and Sebastian have a future together? I just had to keep reading!
Signal To Noise reads like a mix of YA and general fiction due to the dual timelines, telling the stories of adult and teenagers. So I think it can be enjoyed by both readers of YA and Adult fiction. What makes the book really interesting are the magical elements that are integral to the story. It’s not quiet a Fantasy novel and not quite magical realism. It’s just a great and fun work of speculative fiction.
The magic in the story is performed primarily through music. At least that’s what Meche and her friends use as a conduit to work their magic. Meche’s grandma often tells stories of magic and witchcraft, which Meche assumed were simply tall tales when she was was young, but eventually realizes there may have been some truth to these tales. Her grandmother’s magic seems to revolve around knitting, which to me indicated that the magic in the world is inherent and it can be manifested outwardly by the user through something personal to them. For Meche and her friends, that was music. Signal To Noise is an ode to music – it permeates the pages in musical references and a genuine appreciation for the art of music. Music aficionados will certainly get an added layer of enjoyment from seeing pop culture and music references in every chapter. Meche in particular enjoys all sorts music from the 80s and decades past, as well as music from Mexico, the U.S. and Europe.
Back to the magic! At the heart of the story are the relationships between Meche and her friends, which are fractured and complicated after magic enters their lives. Once Meche discovers that she can use a record player and the right vinyl with just the right intentions to weave a spell, her life will change irrevocably. First she uses the magic to get back at a bully, and then her friends get involved to strengthen the power of the spells and the stakes are raised. I’m obviously not going to spoil what they do with the magic, but eventually they do discover the dangers of wielding magic the hard way. And one of them begins to lust for the power the magic offers, to the detriment of others. Ultimately, they will learn that their actions have consequences they can’t escape.
One of the few things that bothered me about this book was that the few references to homosexuality in the story were all negative. Sebastian was often teased, called gay and much worse because he liked reading books and was not hyper-masculine. This happened in 1989 and I understand that teens are jerks and will say awful things. But for me it is never fun to read homophobic slurs thrown at people, especially when it is not explicitly challenged on the page and there is no mention of homosexuality in a neutral or positive light. Fortunately, there were only a few instances where this happened during the first 1/3 of the book, so I was able to enjoy the story overall.
By the last third of the novel, I was fully invested in the characters and their lives. Especially Meche, who was frustratingly stubborn and callous, but also brave and such an interesting person. It took me a while to warm up to her. She often had me pulling my hair and groaning in annoyance, but by the end of the novel I was rooting for her and it was so rewarding to see her grow and let old grudges go. The ending was very satisfying, realistic, and happy. I closed the book with a smile on my face. 🙂
I highly recommend Signal To Noise. It was Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s debut novel and I was thoroughly impressed. As of writing this review, I have not yet read her sophomore novel, Certain Dark Things, which is also set in Mexico City and has a refreshing take on the vampire myth. I’m even more excited to read it now!
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