Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Solaris, Feb. 10th)-It took me a few days after finishing Signal to Noise before sitting down to write this because I wanted to savor it just a little bit longer as my own before putting my thoughts in writing and sending it out into the ether. If that doesn’t make much sense, if you read it, you’ll understand. I promise.
The story begins in 2009 with the death of Mercedes “ Meche” Vega’s father, Vicente, and her return to Mexico City, after nearly 20 years, to bury him and endure the ministrations of her mother and over a week of forced family interaction and food. Meche is a long way from the stick thin, gangly kid she was in 1988 and has worked hard to forget that part of her life, and of one person in particular, Sebastian. In 1988, Meche was 15 and her entire world consisted of Sebastian, their friend Daniela, and her Walkman and her father’s extensive record collection. Life at home isn’t perfect: her mother is not the most attentive, and her father is an alcoholic that spends a large amount of time, when he’s not working as a DJ, at the local bar, or with his mistress. She loves her father intensely (and indeed, she’s very much like him), though, deep down, she knows that he’s putting a strain on the family. Her main source of comfort is in her friends, and of course, music. Lots of music. Sebastian’s home life is quite a bit worse, but he finds his solace in books, and soft spoken Daniela has her head firmly in the clouds, and spends quite a bit of time with her Easy Bake Oven. One day, though, things change, and in a big way. Meche discovers, quite by accident, that she can use music to wield magic, and convinces Sebastian and Daniela to explore this new talent. But things soon spiral out of control, as these things sometimes do when power gets too great, especially in the hands of 15 year olds, driving a wedge between Meche and her friends, possibly threatening their friendship forever.
Let’s get one thing clear: this is a story about friendship that has magic in it, not the other way around. While fantastical things do happen, the core of the story is the relationships between Meche, Sebastian, and Daniela, and Meche and her family. And, of course, seeing Sebastian and Daniela after all this time won’t be easy. The author nails teenage angst, yet takes it from something that can seem elusive to the eyes of an adult, and makes it very real again. Meche is tetchy and awkward, and utterly likeable, and her easy way with Sebastian is one of the most endearing things about this book. As 15 year olds, they’re not romantic, not really, and although there is tension there, it’s the normal tension between a boy and a girl of a certain age, with all of the embarrassment that comes with it, including all of the body insecurity, and well, general insecurity that we all had as teens.
The book moves seamlessly between 1988 and 2009, and if you’re a child of the 80s (like I am), the nostalgia factor is fantastic. It’s a fantasy world all its own. Remember your Walkman and mixtapes? Remember how it seemed like your whole life was ahead of you if you could just grab it and hold on? I fell hopelessly in love with Meche and her friends, and Moreno-Garcia builds an atmospheric and very alive Mexico City around them. You’ll swear that you’re with the three of them in the old warehouse that they’ve made their own, and home base for the magic they wield. This is a lovely, emotionally delicate novel, and it’s written in heartrendingly beautiful prose. It also made me cry, but in a good way, and immediately I wanted to start over and read it again. The author captures perfectly our ability, as children, to see the wonder and beauty in life, even when it seems elusive, and she does this with magic, friendship, and of course, love. Signal to Noise is an utterly gorgeous book, and will make you want to get out your old turntable and records and give them a spin or two (or three.) Don’t miss out on this one.