The Book Of Emma Reyes review: Sneak peek into a wondrous, terrifying world

August 13, 2017
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The Book Of Emma Reyes: A Memoir In Correspondence by Emma Reyes, translated by Daniel Alarcón (W&N, £14.99)

She was illiterate until her teens and had no formal education but these 23 letters, sent to a Colombian historian and critic who she met in the late 1940s, are a mesmerising account of her early life, full of the most striking details.

Emma never knew her father and didn’t realise that the woman she lived with was her mother, simply calling her Miss Maria. Her earliest memory is emptying an overflowing bedpan on a rubbish heap in Bogotá then playing with the other children there. 

She spent the first few years of her life living in a single room and throughout her childhood she was underfed, locked in rooms, left alone for long periods of time or ushered out on journeys across barren plains and lonesome towns as Miss Maria went in search of work. 

For no apparent reason, she saw her younger brother abandoned in a basket at the door of a big white house: “That day remains, without doubt, the cruellest of my life.” Then she and her sister Helena were abandoned, too, left at a railway station when Emma was about five years old. 

The next 15 years were spent at a convent “that took in poor girls… in order to teach 

them how to work” and “because we were daughters of the streets… stupid, despicable, pitiful beings”, they were worked hard, cleaning bathrooms with disgusting rags and creating elaborate embroideries that were sold to profit the convent. 

Emma describes the nuns, some cruel, some kindly, the bullying girls, how “three locks, two large padlocks, one chain, and two thick wooden bars secured the first door that separated us from the rest of the world”. Then she is abused by a handsome priest, which drove her to escape aged 19 and step back into the world where she finally “breathed an air that didn’t smell like the convent”. 

Aware that her powers of recollection are extraordinary, she explains: “You must think it strange that I can tell you in such detail and with such precision what happened so long ago. I agree with you, that a child of five who leads a normal life wouldn’t be able to recount his childhood with this level of accuracy. But we, Helena and I, remember it as if it were today.” 

Reading her words pitches the reader head first into a wondrous, terrifying world.



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