This astonishing memoir of a childhood lived in extreme poverty in Latin America was hailed as an instant classic following its publication in Colombia in 2012, almost a decade after the death of its author.
Now translated into English, The Book of Emma Reyes describes in vivid detail, the remarkable courage and imagination of a young girl growing up with nothing. Illiterate until her teens and with no formal education, Emma Reyes escaped the extreme poverty of her early years to make a new life for herself. In the late 1940s she befriended a Colombian historian and critic and sent 23 letters sharing the mesmerising tale of her early life. It is these letters that make up the book.
She spent her early years living in a single room with her sister Helena with no toilet or running water, where she was underfed, locked in, and abandoned for long periods of time. The pair were ushered across barren plains and into strange towns as their mother, known to the pair as ‘Miss Maria’ looked for work.
She watched as her younger brother, who gave her so much hope, was abandoned on a doorstep in the early hours of the morning, before being shipped off again. Just a short time later she and her sister were abandoned too, left at a railway station where they were eventually taken in by a convent.
Her years spent at the convent were just as hard; the girls were separated from the outside world by numerous locks, chains and wooden bars. It would be almost two decades before Reyes stepped foot outside of the convent again.
Her account of her life is terrifying, horrifying and incredibly sad. Her time in the convent shows Reye’s courage and ingenuity. Despite the overwhelming sense of sadness and dread, there is a bright sense of hope as the book is really told through the eyes of a child. Far from self-pitying, the portrait that emerges inspires awe at the stunning early life of a gifted artist whose talent remained hidden for a long time.
The last letter Reyes sent documents her escape from the convent and I wished it wasn’t the end. I was left searching for more information about this incredible woman, and I hope more will be written about her later life.
Reyes died in 2013, aged 84, in France as a little known painter, let alone a writer. It is such a shame that her talent was hidden for so long.