Review: 'The Book of Emma Reyes'

Memoria details harrowing childhood of famous artist

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‘The Book of Emma Reyes” is the remarkable memoir of Colombian painter and intellectual Emma Reyes, who overcame a harrowing childhood to become a successful artist who counted Frida Kahlo and Jean-Paul Sartre among her closest friends.

Reyes’ glamorous adult life in Paris would have been unimaginable to her younger self: Reyes was an illegitimate child who grew up in Bogota in a windowless room with no toilet or running water. When her mother would leave to travel she would lock Reyes and her siblings inside for days at a time with little food and one overflowing bedpan.

After a series of moves and misfortunes, her mother abandoned her children and the girls were forced to take refuge in an enormous Catholic convent. Here they were subjected to 10- to 18-hour work days embroidering tablecloths and robes, as well as the cruelties routinely dispatched by nuns and the 150 other girls. The children fought like animals over everything from rags to be used as clothing to access to the five toilets that served the entire compound.

Reyes once again finds herself locked inside, this time for more than 10 years. At the convent, Reyes received no education and had no contact with the outside world until she quietly escaped at age 19.

While she had been encouraged throughout her life to write a memoir, including by the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Reyes was hesitant to do so because of her lack of formal education. She eventually was persuaded by a friend to write her story in letters, using whatever style and method felt comfortable.

Collected here, these 23 letters depicting Reyes’ early life until her escape are unashamed and unsentimental, rooted in a child’s point of view but also written with the grace and totality of an artist, with careful attention paid to details and small moments of wonder that float to the surface.

An unforgettable work by an often forgotten artist, “The Book of Emma Reyes” is a courageous tale of survival.

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