The Book of Emma Reyes: A Memoir

Emma Reyes was a Colombian painter who worked with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and spent most of her adult life in Paris. The Book of Emma Reyes is her childhood memoir, written between 1969 and 1997, in the form of 23 letters to a friend who suggested this method for finally putting down her horrifying and enthralling stories.

Nothing about this memoir is sentimental. Reyes's earliest memories are of extreme poverty in a slum of Bogotá, living with her older sister and a brother who was taken away without explanation. The head of this household was an abusive erratic young woman who Reyes barely realized was her mother, "a woman I remember only as an enormous tangle of black hair." She would lock the children into their windowless room for days at a time while she went away, and eventually she abandoned the sisters to a convent when they were five and six years old.

There the girls joined 150 others in working 10-hour days to earn their keep. Reyes had no schooling until she was 10, and not much thereafter. These horrors and deprivations are told with the same open innocent perception as the many wonders she remembers as well: a spectacular neighborhood fire, a general made by her friends out of clay, a pet pig, an adored baby, a player piano. Each time Reyes found someone or something to love, she lost them through some catastrophe. This is a memoir of extreme hardships told in a clear, restrained style, with an ending that leaves the reader wishing for more. --Sara Catterall

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