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The Book of Emma Reyes

4.26  ·  Rating details ·  2,209 ratings  ·  435 reviews
A literary discovery: an extraordinary account, in the tradition of The House on Mango Street and Angela s Ashes, of a Colombian woman s harrowing childhood

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 i
Hardcover, 192 pages
Published August 8th 2017 by Penguin Books (first published April 2012)
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Edgar Duarte You should read a note published on Soho Magazine about the story of the many characters appearing on Emma's book. You can read the Spanish written no…moreYou should read a note published on Soho Magazine about the story of the many characters appearing on Emma's book. You can read the Spanish written note on:

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Updated in June 2020. The Book of Emma Reyes is the book of the month for June/July 2020 in the nonfiction book club on good reads. After discussing this book with a few trusted goodreads friends, I updated my rating and review.

I am always on alert for books by women of color from around the globe. A few weeks ago a goodreads friend had mentioned reading The Book of Emma Reyes: A Memoir and it piqued by interest as a memoir by a South American artist from the 20th century. A product of what ear
Emma Reyes writes of her Colombian childhood. To put it mildly, her childhood was extremely unpleasant. We read twenty three letters written by her and sent to a friend, a Colombian historian. He encouraged her to write them—her life story should be brought to light, pulled out in the open for public view. The book was first published in Colombia in 2012, nine years after Emma Reyes’ death.

What is told is disturbing.

Emma Reyes and her siblings are deserted by their mother. The father is absent.
Nov 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I just noticed there was an interesting article on Literary Hub website ( authors were asked to name one or two books that they thought were fantastic reads over the last decade but for the most part were under the radar of most readers and this book was mentioned, The Book of Emma Reyes. I loved it.

Here is the blurb from Andrew Martin and I like the quote he wrote of the artist/writer Emma Reyes...
Emma Reyes, tr. Daniel Alarcón, The Book of Emma Reyes
LAPL Reads
Mar 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
For all of her adult life, Emma Reyes was known as an artist who painted and sketched, and as storyteller in the world of other artists in Europe and South America. The historian Germán Arciniegas urged her to write down her memoirs, but she begged off, claiming not to have any literary talents. He suggested that she write him letters about her childhood, which eventually became this memoir in epistolary format. Arciniegas showed some of the letters to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who expressed his g ...more
Penny (Literary Hoarders)
This was a memoir written in letters by Emma Reyes. She had a very bizarre, incredibly impoverished and astonishingly abusive upbringing. Her mother was someone Emma and her sister referred to as Mrs. Maria. After years of abuse that included horrific violence that included being locked in closets, rooms, etc for the entire day, sometimes days, Mrs. Maria abandoned them and the girls were taken to a convent.

The majority, in fact most, of this memoir is stories from the convent. This was a "good
Sep 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This was such a miraculous and powerful book. The account of, Emma Reyes and her sister, had the power to pull at your heart and wish you could write yourself into the story just to help the two of them discover some sort of happiness and peace.

Sadly, children are subjected to this type of injustice on an everyday basis. It helps others recognize that they can weather the pain and tribulations that may be inflicted upon them when they are able to see others out there, kids even, who have lived t
Missy J
I've never heard of the author Emma Reyes before I read this book. In the introduction of this book, the translator Daniel Alarcon gives a brief summary of her life and how unlikely and amazing this book is to have been published. Emma Reyes was born in dire poverty and didn't even know who her parents were. The father was absent. The mother wanted Emma and her sister Helena to call her Mrs. Maria. One day, their mother abandoned them at a train station and the girls ended up at a convent. Most ...more
Sarah Ibrahim
Jul 11, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I liked it, how a little girl that only had like 8 years old and still remembers all those details about her childhood, how she could get to some results and opinions about the things that go around her, but the end was very shocking for me.
Jee Koh
Feb 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The Book of Emma Reyes is a revelation. Godmother to Latin American writers and artists in Paris, Emma Reyes was illiterate until her late teens, escaped from grinding poverty and the convent in Columbia, to Buenos Aires and then Paris, to re-invent herself as painter. The memoir, written as a series of letters to Colombian historian and critic Germán Arciniegas, won praise from Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As translated by Daniel Alarcón, the style is artfully simple and wholly faithful to the world ...more
May 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, favorites
I had no idea who Emma Reyes was when I picked up this book (a painter who became part of the cultural elite in France, but at the same time did not become famous). The premise seemed interesting and I brought it home, oblivious of the fact that it was an autobiography compiled of the letters Emma wrote to a historian, recounting the first twenty years of her life.

When this dawned upon me, the book really started gripping me. Emma's story is an amazing one. There's not much else I can say about
Carly Friedman
The Book of Emma Reyes was an easy audiobook to finish quickly and I found the insight into her difficult childhood interesting. The book is made up of a series of letters she sent to friends in which she recounts her childhood.

She was abandoned by her mother at age 6 or 7 and then raised in a convent. Reyes struggled with crossed eyes, poverty, and abuse at the convent. Her writing is so straight-forward and simple that even the most difficult parts of her childhood were not too distressing to
Zuzana Kubáň
May 15, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I have thoroughly enjoyed this book. More specifically, I enjoyed the style of writing that was so unique, being very child-like in many ways, although in reality, it was written by an adult woman.
The book was also great in giving the reader a deep and intimate look into poverty, without being full of pity, as is often the case when discussing this topic.
My only wish is that the book would have been longer, not ending so abruptly.
Daniel Polansky
These recollections of an inconceivably miserable upbringing of the eponymous author, first in the slums of Bogota, then in the miserable stolidness of a Catholic convent, are so horrifying and peculiar that the book seems a work of fantasy, in the vein of Gabriel Garcia Marquez who championed the work. They are not, however, or apparently not, only an authentic history of sordid misery and the heroism needed to escape from it. Very strange, very sad, very good. The bit about the doll, in partic ...more
Aug 08, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir
I especially liked the introduction by Daniel Alarcon (I'm a big fan of his work on Radio Ambulante) and the 3 pieces of art by Emma Reyes that appear in the book. Interesting to read about a childhood in poverty in Colombia after having visited Bogota and Yacopi (also in the Department of Cundinamarca) last year. I would like to read an account of Emma's life for the period after this book ends. ...more
Nov 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir-biography
This book of letters is astonishing. I'm amazed the woman learned to write so well after such an uneducated and abusive childhood. The book ends when she is just a teenager and left me wondering how she became an artist and what else happened in her adulthood. I guess I will have to do some research on that... ...more
Sebastian Perez Saaibi
Feb 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A hidden gem of a Book. Emma’s writing presents a mix of roughness and finesse that is quite unique to her upbringing and stories. The fact that these letters were found and were so incredibly entertaining, sad and real is reason enough to dig deeper into this book
Mar 19, 2018 rated it it was ok
This is quite an amazing story. I was very sorry that it ended just as she left the convent. This wonderful artist went on to have an extraordinary life. I would have liked to learn where she went from here and how she managed to rise above this troubling childhood.
DAMN! This was a fun read and a very good book club pick, if I do say so myself. Would recommend. Plus: it's short!

I also feel like this would be a fun "young adult" book to assign to mature teenage readers (maybe that's just because the jacket cover compares it to 'House on Mango Street').

One big theme of the book was using "kid logic" to deal with life's biggest questions and mysteries. It also seemed like, by committing to writing from this very limited, childlike point of view, it creates q
May 21, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book is mesmerizing, haunting, hilarious, and a harrowing journey of an artist who lived through more than most people ever will in their lifetimes. It grabs you at the first page. You won’t want to put it down.
Jun 16, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I never know how to review a memoir. How do you review the life of a person?
So all I can tell you is that I am sorry Emma had to go through what she had to go through and I think she was very brave in telling her story.
Austral Scout
Despite relentless dispiriting conditions, Emma Reyes letters abound with spirit and vitality. I prepared myself to finish this memoir with a heavy heart, inevitably; I knew what I was going into. The magic of Reyes writing is that access to her vigorous perception creates a sense of seeing things as they truly were -- and there was sadness aplenty -- but this experience of truly seeing is invigorating. Reyes' retelling is captivating and intuitively well-woven. I enjoyed reading, and read the m ...more
Aug 29, 2019 rated it really liked it
The Book of Emma Reyes is an epistolary novel based on actual letters sent by the adult Emma to Germán Arciniegas.
It is a one or two seating read, the story flows very quickly from letter to letter and builds up the story of Emma's miserable childhood, first with her mother, and later with the nuns at the convent- orphanage in which she and her sister were placed.
I found the first part of the story of her early childhood engaging and moving. In a very matter-of-fact way she describes an horrific
Megan Geissler
Sep 25, 2018 rated it really liked it
Rather appalling chronicle of a girl's childhood in Colombia told in letter form to a friend later on in life. Emma tells her past experiences as though she is living them at the moment, and with a child's raw ignorance and emotional responses. The neglect and abuse she and her siblings endure is shocking but I appreciate that she was willing to tell her story - whether she knew it would be made public or not - because otherwise those lives are invisible. Some compelling fiction could be made of ...more
Cheryl Klein
Mar 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I downloaded this book because Susan Straight said it was the best book she read last year. It's an extraordinary artifact from a woman who survived a traumatically ordinary childhood and became a successful artist in Europe. Born into poverty in Colombia in the first half of the 20th century, Emma and her sister Helena are abandoned by their abusive mother and smart enough not to help the nuns who rescue them to track down their family. The nuns are abusive too, but in a more mundane, instituti ...more
Brooke Salaz
Oct 15, 2017 rated it really liked it
Moving tale told in letters written by Emma Reyes to a friend. Retrospective portrayal of a childhood in Columbia in the early 20th century of unimaginable deprivation, and but for rare exceptions, bereft of love, in a near matter of fact manner. We meet her at 4 with her older sister Helena living with someone of unknown relationship to her called Miss Maria who acts as their sole guardian. Miss Maria abandons two little boys, one an infant, and eventually Emma and Helena as well and they are f ...more
Locks, keys, and the click of keys locking doors echo throughout the remarkable memoir of Latin American artist Emma Reyes' childhood in Colombia, a contrast to the rich creative spirit and imagination revealed. Her childhood is told in a series of letters, revealing grinding poverty, cruelty, yet also an incredible creative spirit strong enough to survive. Beautifully and compellingly written, I found myself unable to set it aside when I finished it. I actually had to go back to read some of it ...more
Apr 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
There are so few books told by someone who has first-hand experience with the kind of deprivation that this autobiographer lived through. When I read how her book came to be, it shed some light on why that is. She didn’t feel like she was able to write down her story, since she only became literate in her late teens. It was with the help of her friends that she put down her story little by little. The point of view is like an impressionist painting: we get little scenes from her life, not cleane ...more
Kevin Loder
Aug 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
I read this as part of the Babbel book club, which selects books that have been translated from the language the author wrote the story in. I didn't know of Emma Reyes before, but now I'd be very interested to learn about her adult life, as this book is made of letters she wrote as an adult about her childhood. I was captivated by the storytelling, always hopeful life would get better for her. I've never read a memoir like this (or many at all.) It is incredible that these letters were written o ...more
Oct 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
Emma Reyes was a Columbian painter of the mid-20th century, known for her friendships with Frida Kahlo and others. This book, based on a series letters written to a friend over many years, forms a 'memoir in correspondence' of her childhood, which also inspired her art. Born into abject poverty, she spent her early years at the mercy of a strange woman who never called herself a mother. After being abandoned in a train station, Emma and her sister toiled for the next fifteen years in a convent, ...more
Hans van der Veeke
Jun 11, 2018 rated it liked it
Remarkable autobiographic book about the first years of a little girl that is abandoned (just left on the train station) by her mother. She ends up in a cloister where the life is hard and harsh.
The story is told in letters to someone. No child should have such a life but sadly I think that this is still common in many South-American countries.
The story ends when she manages to escape the nunnery. I guess she is between eleven and thirteen then. And I assume there will be a second part of the r
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