Book Review: The Book of Emma Reyes

Author: Emma Reyes; translation by Daniel Alarcón

Genre: Memoir, Letters

Rating: 5 Stars


Goodreads summary of The Book of Emma Reyes

“This astonishing memoir of a childhood lived in extreme poverty in Latin America was hailed as an instant classic when first published in Colombia in 2012, nine years after the death of its author, who was encouraged in her writing by Gabriel García Márquez. Comprised of letters written over the course of thirty years, and translated and introduced by acclaimed Peruvian-American writer Daniel Alarcón, it describes in vivid, painterly detail the remarkable courage and limitless imagination of a young girl growing up with nothing.

Emma was an illegitimate child, raised in a windowless room in Bogotá with no water or toilet and only ingenuity to keep her and her sister alive. Abandoned by their mother, she and her sister moved to a convent housing 150 orphan girls, where they washed pots, ironed and mended laundry, scrubbed floors, cleaned bathrooms, and sewed garments and decorative cloths for [the] church. Illiterate and knowing nothing of the outside world, Emma escaped at age nineteen, eventually coming to have a career as an artist and to befriend the likes of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as well as European artists and intellectuals.

Far from self-pitying, the portrait that emerges from this clear-eyed account inspires awe at the stunning early life of a gifted writer whose talent remained hidden for far too long.”


I discovered this book as I was searching for options for my book club to read, for our 2021 Read-Around-the-World Picks. We’re currently reading books by South American authors. And I must admit, at first I wasn’t sure if this book would be an appropriate selection because Emma Reyes is barely known for her paintings and artwork (at least globally) let alone her writing, even though she ran in the same social circles as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. But after reading this book, I can tell you— that should change immediately. 

When I came across this book, I had also just visited Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s exhibition at the Denver Art Museum. And What Would Frida Do? had just been published (currently on my shelf to read). So ultimately it was Reyes’ association with Frida Kahlo and her work, as well as the reviews I discovered about this book, and the publisher’s description of the book, that convinced me that it would be an interesting read if nothing else. And I was not disappointed in the least. 


In her letters to Columbian historian and critic, Germán Arciniegas, Reyes describes scenes from her childhood in vivid, striking, and oftentimes poetic detail— yet always from the viewpoint of the vulnerable, naive, and innocent child she was while she was living those experiences she describes to him. You can tell from her descriptions of events and observations that she always had the mind and heart of a painter, an artist— even as a young child. 

Here are a few examples from the book to illustrate this claim:

“In circumstances like the ones in which we lived, one is born knowing what hunger, cold, and death mean. With our heads bowed and our eyes filled with tears, we slowly gathered around General Rebollo [a large mud figurine Reyes had created with fellow neighborhood children at the garbage heap next to her one-room house in Bogotá].” (Page 5)

Book ISBN: 978-0-14-310869-6

“The entire town was in disarray, with everyone trying to put out the fire.The wind blew in the direction of the blaze, fanning the flames from one property to another. It was just us left in the shop, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the fire. One of the Montejos appeared and told Miss María that it had started at the hospital— one of the fireworks had landed there, setting the hay roof alight. The fifty patients who were inside had died in the flames. … The fire burned for three days … The dead and injured …numbered more than one hundred; for many days the sky stayed a dark shade of gray, almost black … I remember that fire as the most beautiful and extraordinary spectacle of my childhood.” (Page 43)

Book ISBN: 978-0-14-310869-6

“I think I learned then, in that one moment, what injustice is, and that a child of four is already capable of feeling that they no longer want to live, that they should be swallowed by the earth’s bowels. That day remains, without a doubt, the cruelest of my life.” (Page 48) 

Book ISBN: 978-0-14-310869-6

“Our only enemy was the Devil. We knew everything about him. In fact, we knew more about the Devil than about God …We also knew hell down to its last corner, knew it so intimately we felt we could navigate it with our eyes closed.” (Page 96) 

Book ISBN: 978-0-14-310869-6

“I liked only to make up my own stories, to imagine things; instead of catechism or arithmetic, I would rather they let me play the piano or harmonium, go to the yard and climb trees. … I liked embroideries because I could make up new stitches and new ways to do them.” (Page 143)

Book ISBN: 978-0-14-310869-6

Overall, this memoir is painted with a surprising and unpolished beauty, even in the midst of vivid descriptions of filth and grime; its vulnerability and authenticity profound and bright. Not many of us would be willing or able to write our own stories down with as much honesty, detail, and subtle depth as Emma Reyes does— not even if they were addressed to our closest friends or family members. 

While Emma Reyes forces readers to see and understand so many unpleasant and cruel aspects of her childhood in The Book of Emma Reyes, she does not force them to pity her, not even for a second. Instead, readers are left admiring her all the more, wanting to know even more about her life and work, long after she frees herself from the locked doors of the convent in her late teens. 


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