Silvia Moreno-Garcia may not be quite as well known as Margaret Atwood but she too is a Canadian speculative fiction author, as well as a publisher and an editor. Although she has published enough short fiction to fill two collections, 2015’s Signal to Noise is her first novel.
In 2009, Meche returns to Mexico City, the city of her childhood. A deliberate exile for the last eighteen years, she has been reluctantly drawn back by family loyalty: her father, with whom Meche cut all ties some twenty years ago, has died. Despite the rift between father and daughter, her family expects her to do her part, attending the funeral and sorting through the old fellow’s vast collection of records and papers.
Meche’s father isn’t the only person with whom Meche had cut all ties. She had cut off contact with her former best friends, Sebastian and Daniela. Unlike her father, they’re not dead. It doesn’t take long before they’re back in Meche’s life.
The text interweaves two narratives, one set in 1988 and one starting in 2009. In the modern story, Meche has to finally deal with the consequences of the events of 1988.
In 1988, Meche was a mathematically gifted social outcast, ignored by her classmates when they weren’t bullying her. Her closest friends are Daniela and bookish Sebastian. Aside from being pariahs, the trio don’t share many interests. Even their backgrounds are very different: Daniela’s family is comparatively well-to-do; Sebastian’s is poor; and Meche’s is somewhere in between. Meche’s family is also close to falling apart, thanks to her father’s failings
Sebastian and Meche do have one thing in common: they are both pining for people who are far above them socially. Sebastian is smitten by the beautiful and rich Isadora, while Meche is infatuated with Isadora’s on-and-off again boyfriend, the handsome and intellectually uncomplicated Constantino.
Two unrelated events transform this familiar-sounding romantic quadrangle into something more: both Isadora and Constantino hit on the idea that they should make their SO jealous by ostentatiously paying attention to Sebastian and Meche, respectively, and Meche inadvertently discovers how to work magic.
Magic runs in Meche’s family. Her grandmother Dolores has been kind enough to share cautionary tales about the dangers of magic with Meche, but has never told Meche how to work magic herself. Meche is not overtly encouraged to learn, and not just because most of her family dismiss Dolores’ tales as mere superstition. While the potential to work magic is common, perhaps universal, each practitioner must find her or his Object of Power, something so personal that only the practitioner can imbue it with whatever essence it is that makes it magical. Dolores’ Object of Power was a thimble. Music-loving Meche’s Object of Power reflects her own obsessions: it’s a Duncan Dhu LP.
It doesn’t take long for Meche to share her discovery with her friends. It takes even less time for the group to start testing what can be done with Meche’s magic LP when the trio acts as a coven. They experiment with spells designed to punish those they feel have wronged them and to attract those who they desire. Soon enough, they find that Dolores’ cautionary tales about what magic can and cannot do were very much based in fact.
I notice that the Publisher’s Weekly reviewer who looked at this decided to use up some of their precious handful of words on the music; Moreno-Garcia certainly knows her music and anyone reading this who is familiar with the period will recognize old favourites, as well as a list of unfamiliar names to try. PW reviewers have to choose their words carefully, being allowed so few; I like to think whoever the reviewer was thought long and hard about not mentioning the food in the novel. Moreno-Garcia offers her readers a litany of culinary delights.
Canadians like to think that one defining characteristic of CanLit is a mastery of place; Moreno-Garcia’s work certainly could be used to support that thesis. Both the Mexico Cities of 1988 and 2009 come to life in her book. Her Mexico Cities are richer, less narrowly focused, less pandering than most fictional versions of Mexico City I have seen recently. Most of the time, the surroundings were both vivid and well explained, although the significance of the video shop that only rented Betamax films escaped me.
If you tap the narrative sharply on the edge of a metaphorical desk, it falls neatly apart into the 1988 section and the 2009. While I enjoyed much of the modern day narrative (Meche’s unexpected encounters with revelation and her belated reconciliations) it was the 1988 section I truly savored. Some of this is for negative reasons — I couldn’t accept that what Daniela and Sebastian did in the 2009 narrative was in fact forgivable — but mostly it’s because the 1988 section is very, very good.