Plenty of books use magic to talk about coming-of-age stories and the secrets that people bury... but few of them are as sad, or as evocative, as Silvia Moreno-Garcia's new novel Signal to Noise. Her story of three friends in Mexico City and their musical obsessions feels true, as well as truly sad.
Signal to Noise takes place in 1988 and 2009. In 1988, young Meche and her friends Sebastian and Daniela discover that playing certain vinyl records, with a certain amount of concentration, allows them to make magic. Actual, real magic — including causing accidents, changing their appearance, and making money miraculously appear. But Meche and Sebastian have crushes on the worst possible people, and their attempts to use magic to find love only lead to disaster.
Meanwhile, in 2009, Meche has come back to Mexico City for her father's funeral. She hasn't seen Sebastian or Daniela since 1989, and she doesn't want to see them now. But she winds up reconnecting with them anyway, and discovers the truth about what was really going on 20 years earlier.
Signal to Noise is kind of a slow burn, taking its time to establish the characters and their world — and it takes roughly the first 90 or 100 pages before the magic really starts happening. In fact, this book took a long time to win me over, and I nearly put it aside a few times, but in the end I came to appreciate its strong sense of time and place. And the result of all this slow development is a story that feels somewhat richer and more intimate than one that hits the ground running.
And the constant intercutting between the teenage Meche and the grown-up Meche winds up knitting together a composite portrait of someone who's living with a lot of resentment and pain, who has internalized a lot of mythology about her friends and family that make confronting the reality painful. Meche seems purely selfish and randomly bitchy, until you learn more about her family and the dynamic that shaped her. Part of the marvel of this book is the way that Meche slowly becomes more sympathetic, even as you glimpse more of her dark side.
Meche is the leader of her trio of teen magic-users, and at times she sort of bullies them — but the politics of the group becomes a lot more multifaceted over time. Meche's relationship with Sebastian, the tall dark nerd who's constantly trying to get her to read books, is particularly thorny and multilayered.
At the same time, this book definitely doesn't need to bog down quite as much as it does — for example, there are a lot of sections from the point of view of Meche's father, and it's never entirely clear why we need to see his viewpoint on events. Various other characters, including Sebastian but also some minor characters, also get their viewpoints represented, and the book might actually pack more punch if it stayed closer to Meche's viewpoint.
A big part of Signal to Noise's "hook" is the focus on music — for a couple reasons. First of all, music is the main touchstone that pretty much all of the characters use to communicate — Meche's father is a failed bandleader turned radio DJ, and his vinyl collection is a treasure trove. Meche goes on a journey of self-discovery that involves listening to lots of classic rock and jazz, and at the same time lots of 80s pop (both in English and in Spanish) gets referenced and dissected. It's a great way into the characters and their story.
But also, the system of magic in the book, in which certain records hold power if you know how to play them right, is unlike anything I've seen before. Meche becomes a master of finding vinyl records that feel "warm" because they hold power and can make things happen. It's both a metaphor for the way music makes you feel like anything is possible when you're young, and also a straight-up cool way of imagining magical powers.
If this book were just the 1988-89 segments, it would be a pretty standard, if well-crafted "coming of age" story. It would show how these three teenagers discovering that they have magical powers, but also that everything comes with a cost. And it would be a pretty unique approach to the teenage-magician subgenre, thanks to the use of music but also the very grounded tone.
But the inclusion of segments set 20 years later changes this book into something very different: a coming-of-age story that simultaneously looks at what becomes of us after long we've made our choices and confronted the limits of our powers.
The good news is, Signal to Noise builds to a powerful ending, in both the 1989 and 2009 segments, that I hadn't seen coming. It's the sort of ending that makes you glad you stuck around, and it will leave you with a new awareness that books, like records, have the power to make all sorts of things possible.
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