Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Signal to Noise owes, I think, quite a lot more to the South American magic realist tradition than it does to Western SFF. Its protagonist, Mercedes, returns to her home town in Mexico from her adopted home in Norway to attend her father’s funeral; once there, she finds unwelcome memories flooding back. In a series of flashbacks to her high school days, we’re told how she and two friends, all stuck at the bottom of the high school social ladder and lusting after people who would never dream of noticing them, find that they can use their beloved vinyl records to do magic.
It’s a book that works on a very simple metaphor: anyone who’s ever listened to their headphones on their way to an interview knows that the right music can give you power that’s no less potent for being imaginary. What if that was real, literal magic power? What if you could really change your life with music? And it uses that literalised metaphor to tell a very focused, very personal story about homecoming and shared cultural touchstones.
The mode of the novel is really elegy – an elegy to the hormone-ridden years of teenhood, when everything seems approximately a million times more important than it actually is. It feels appropriate that that intensity is rendered through a novel about music, whose very purpose is to hold and draw out and intensify emotion: that’s a good choice. And I like that that intensity is offset by the withdrawn and slightly bitter perspective of Older Mercedes, a Mercedes who’s perhaps less wise than she thinks. I like that this is a magic realist novel about flawed and not always entirely likeable characters, and that it’s not particularly interested in the exact workings of how Mercedes and her high school friends cast their spells.
But…I liked it. I didn’t love it. Like a lot of novels that flash back to the protagonist’s childhood, I found it just a little too personal; too wrapped up in itself. This is entirely my own preference, I’ll admit; I favour big, ambitious books about new societies and new ways of being over slim, elegiac novels about a specific character’s emotional life. There are lots of good things about Signal to Noise, and your mileage may vary; it just wasn’t, quite, for me.