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the Complete Review
the complete review - memoirs


The Book of Emma Reyes

Emma Reyes

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To purchase The Book of Emma Reyes

Title: The Book of Emma Reyes
Author: Emma Reyes
Genre: Autobiographical
Written: (1969-1997) (Eng. 2017)
Length: 183 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Book of Emma Reyes - US
Memoria por correspondencia - US
The Book of Emma Reyes - UK
The Book of Emma Reyes - Canada
Mémoires par correspondance - France
Das Buch der Emma Reyes - Deutschland
Non sapevamo giocare a niente - Italia
Memoria por correspondencia - España
  • Spanish title: Memoria por correspondencia
  • UK subtitle: A Memoir in Correspondence
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Daniel Alarcón
  • First published posthumously in 2012

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Our Assessment:

B+ : charming childhood pieces

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A 26/8/2017 Alice Spawls
The NY Times A- 15/8/2017 John Williams
The Observer A 7/8/2017 Ed Vulliamy
El País . 11/5/2015 Marta Sanz
TLS . 21/11/2017 Sophie Hughes
World Lit. Today . 1-2/2018 Elizabeth Fifer

  From the Reviews:
  • "While some of the letters announce themselves as such, opening with “My dear Germán” and ending with “Kisses for all, Emma”, others have no markers, and the story moves, haltingly, across them." - Alice Spawls, The Guardian

  • "(S)tartling and astringently poetic (.....) As moving as this book can be, there is something inherently incomplete and unpolished about it. It is not a conventional memoir and doesnít offer all the satisfactions of one. But the fragments here are potent and, against all odds, even lovely." - John Williams, The New York Times

  • "Itís described with such quirky grace and raw honesty, such a childlike eye for detail and disarming explanation of the inexplicable, that it is as poetic as it is horrific." - Ed Vulliamy, The Observer

  • "El estilo no es espontáneo, sino que destila lucidez en el forzamiento que supone “empingorotarse” en la actitud de la escritura logrando recrear la atmósfera de misterio de quien vive sensaciones cuyos nombres ignora: el efecto encantador de lo intuido recubre lo sórdido sin suavizarlo." - Marta Sanz, El País

  • "Reyesís simple prose unsentimentally and intuitively captures the poverty and trauma of her early life. Her painterís eye for detail does the rest." - Elizabeth Fifer, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Colombian-born Emma Reyes (1919-2003) achieved some fame as an artist (see examples of her work), as well as for the company she kept, as: "part of a Latin American and European cultural elite", as translator Daniel Alarcón writes in his Introduction. The Book of Emma Reyes is a memoir of sorts, written in twenty-three letters to Germán Arciniegas over nearly three decades -- but consisting entirely of childhood memories. (As Alarcón's Introduction suggests, the story of her life after that also appears to have been quite interesting, but there's none of that here.) Only published posthumously, in 2012 -- by a small art-publisher whose previous bestseller was: "a collection of 1920s Colombian sci-fi" -- it has become a small 'literary sensation' and has been widely translated.
       Emma's early life was one of extreme poverty and hardship. The first letters describe life in the windowless, single-room Bogotá house she shared with her sister, Helena, two years older, "another child whose name I didn't know whom we called Piojo". and the woman who looked after them, the severe María. There are no parents in the picture, no family history.
       Their lives are uprooted: Piojo is put away in a convent, while María and the girls move to the small town of Guateque, into a comfortable house, with María running a chocolate shop in the town square. Eventually they leave here -- and eventually, moving from one place to the next, María manages to separate herself from the two still very young sisters, who wind up in a convent for the next few years. The final letter closes with Emma, approaching adolescence, making good her escape and setting out, independently, into the real world.
       The fairly short letters present slices of Reyes' childhood life. There are many colorful -- and often shocking -- vignettes, beginning with Emma's daily morning task of emptying out the family bedpan (and then playing on the local garbage heap). The adult world remains mystifying -- Emma capturing well childhood incomprehension about what adults are doing, and why (exacerbated by the fact that the girls basically aren't told anything). Emma takes the world as she finds it -- and conveys the resulting childishly warped picture very well.
       Emma is frequently locked in, wherever they are; such experiences are clearly traumatic, but she never harps on them: The Book of Emma Reyes isn't in the least a wallow in the obvious misery she endured, or a whiny lament of how unfair the world is. To the child, it simply is that way; she knows -- and can imagine, not for herself -- no other.
       In the convent, the girls are put to work, constantly kept busy -- cheap and efficient labor, with Emma showing a particular talent for embroidery. Because no one knows who their parents are, the nuns can't be sure whether or not Emma and Helena were baptized or are fallen fruit -- a big deal for the Catholic Church. Indeed, at one point the young Emma -- knowing practically nothing else -- decides she wants to devote herself to the Church but is disappointed by the priest taking her confession, who tells her it isn't in the (Catholic) cards; it isn't because she doesn't have any money that they don't want her, but rather:

It's because to be a nun, you have to have a mother and a father and have been born into a Christian family.
       The power of childish imagination is particularly nicely conveyed in these letters, in a variety of episodes ranging from the poignant to the comic. One new girl is obsessed with a tiny figurine that she claims is her brother and Emma and her friends eagerly embrace the fiction; while the girl appears to also be using the ruse for her own benefit -- the girls bring food for the brother, rations that the girl of course eats in his stead -- a heartbreaking coda to her story reveals the extent of her own conviction.
       Much is only recounted almost incidentally, and there are things that are missed: extremely close to her older sister at first, the two seem to drift apart. Emma frequently mentions how beautiful Helena is, and how everyone notices (and compares the unattractive, cross-eyed Emma unfavorably to her), but the sibling rivalry isb't really explored, and Helena almost drifts out of the narrative, much of what she does, as well as her fate, left unknown.
       The Book of Emma Reyes is limited as both text and memoir. Alarcón notes Reyes' poor formal education (the Church not really bothering much with that) and how the letters are mistake-strewn -- yet the seeming artlessness contributes to the stories' effectiveness. Much that Emma describes is horrifying -- but in still seeing events as she experienced and recalls them, as a largely uncomprehending child who accepts the world however it is, and with no adult maturity and resentment at how she was treated superimposed on events now, long after the facts, The Book of Emma Reyes is almsot surprisingly charming, and a testament to childish resilience.
       A remarkable picture of growing up in poverty and difficult circumstances, among adults and a Catholic Church little concerned with children's welfare, The Book of Emma Reyes is a fascinating little document, written in a rough but disarmingly open, charming style.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 August 2017

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The Book of Emma Reyes: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Colombian artist Emma Reyes lived 1919 to 2003.

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© 2017 the complete review

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