“Startling and astringently poetic.” —The New York Times
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 was hailed as an instant classic when first published in Colombia in 2012, nearly a decade after the death of its author, who was encouraged in her writing by Gabriel García Márquez. Comprised of letters written over the course of thirty years, and translated and introduced by acclaimed writer Daniel Alarcón, it describes in vivid, painterly detail the remarkable courage and limitless imagination of a young girl growing up with nothing.
Emma Reyes was an illegitimate child, raised in a windowless room in Bogotá with no water or toilet and only ingenuity to keep her and her sister alive. Abandoned by their mother, she and her sister moved to a Catholic convent housing 150 orphan girls, where they washed pots, ironed and mended laundry, scrubbed floors, cleaned bathrooms, sewed garments and decorative cloths for the nuns—and lived in fear of the Devil. Illiterate and knowing nothing of the outside world, Emma escaped at age nineteen, eventually establishing a career as an artist and befriending the likes of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera as well as European artists and intellectuals. The portrait of her childhood that emerges from this clear-eyed account inspires awe at the stunning early life of a gifted writer whose talent remained hidden for far too long.
For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,800 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
About the Author
Emma Reyes (1919–2003) was a Colombian painter and intellectual. Born in Bogotá, she also lived in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Jerusalem, Washington, and Rome before settling in Paris. She dedicated most of her life to painting and drawing, slowly breaking through as an artist and forging friendships with some of the most distinguished European and Latin American artists, writers, and intellectuals of the twentieth century, among them Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. The year she passed away, the French government named her a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters.
Daniel Alarcón (translator/introducer) is one of The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” best fiction writers. His books include the novels Lost City Radio and At Night We Walk in Circles, which was a finalist for the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award; the story collections War by Candlelight and The King Is Always Above the People, which was longlisted for the National Book Award; and the graphic novel City of Clowns. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Granta, n+1, and Harper’s Magazine. Alarcón teaches at the Columbia University Journalism School and is the executive producer of Radio Ambulante, an award-winning Spanish-language podcast distributed by NPR.
One of Library Journal’s 5 Best Memoirs of the Year Finalist for the PEN Translation Prize
The New York Times “Startling and astringently poetic . . . Powerful . . . Moving . . . Potent and, against all odds, even lovely . . . The most sophisticated aspect of this book . . . is just how meticulously Reyes maintains the perspective of a child throughout. . . . She has a similar gift [to Gabriel García Márquez] for relating extraordinary moments with a straight face, making them seem even more otherworldly.”
The New Yorker “Vividly captur[es] poverty, abandonment, and a subsequent convent upbringing. A fine visual sensibility and an unusual generosity give even the darker passages a quality of delight.”
Susan Straight, Los Angeles Times “I read or re-read more than 500 novels this year, to make an epic interactive map of our literary nation with regional fiction. . . . But the book that entranced me, one I carried around the country and recommended to people in every state, was a slim memoir not set in America, but Colombia: The Book of Emma Reyes. . . . Reyes’s voice is wondrous.”
The Wall Street Journal “Humorous, full of wonder and un-self-pitying.”
NPR.org (Lily Meyer) “Her writing is exceptional. Several times while reading, I gasped out loud at the beauty of her prose. It’s some of the best writing I’ve read in years.”
The Paris Review “The book’s most startling element is Reyes’s clear-sighted, unsentimental remembrance of her difficult childhood. . . . Reyes is gloriously unceremonious in her telling: the memoir begins in a garbage heap and ends with a dog sniffing another’s behind.”
The Guardian “Astonishing . . . Her early memories seem photographic—they are vivid and discrete, almost disconnected; charged with the child’s imagination and sense of drama. . . . A marvellous storyteller.”
The Observer (London) “Both intimate and epic . . . The harrowing onset of [Emma Reyes’s] life journey as child and pubescent [is] 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.”
HuffPost, “Top Picks of the Week” “Why are we so fascinated by stories of brutal, difficult or just plain desperately poor childhoods? Think Angela’s Ashes or The Glass Castle or a million other titles. Many reasons, perhaps, but when they’re written so well as this, perhaps it doesn’t matter.”
BBC, “Ten Books to Read in August” “Extraordinary . . . Reyes writes with captivating detail.”
Harvard Review “Engrossing . . . Concise and powerful . . . It is difficult not to feel affection for the writer of this story. . . . Reyes’s writing is simple and straightforward, highly descriptive but never ornate. Her clear prose is laced with breathtaking truisms, expertly relayed in English by her translator.”
Artforum “Fascinating . . . Harrowing . . . [A] revelatory autobiography of a self-determined woman who followed her dreams.”
ARTnews “Captivating . . . Harrowing . . . Like a fairy tale . . . There are . . . villains, saints (of the earthly and mythical types), hypocritical clergy, disfigured and exaggerated Botero-esque figures. It’s all very visual. The hardships Reyes depicts are nearly unimaginable and medieval in character, and the ‘heroine’ survives through awesome ingenuity. . . . [It] calls to mind the picaresque adventures of Lazarillo de Tormes and, much later, Leonora Carrington.” World Literature Today “Arrestingly beautiful . . . Reyes’s simple prose unsentimentally and intuitively captures the poverty and trauma of her early life. Her painter’s eye for detail does the rest. We owe a great debt to the able translator, the novelist Daniel Alarcón, who has given an original voice the wider audience it deserves.”
New York Journal of Books “An uncommon memoir . . . A book that’s a minor classic of Latin American literature and that offers a stunning portrait of the artist as a young woman . . . Unlike the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, Emma Reyes wasn’t a magical realist, but there’s something both magical and realistic about her book. . . . One can understand why Márquez raved about Reyes’s prose that seems artless but that must have been carefully crafted. As a storyteller, Reyes has an innate sense of pacing and suspense; as a kind of cultural historian she knows how to paint portraits not only of individuals but of a society as well. . . . A rich portrait of life among the poorest of the poor in Colombia in the early 20th century [in] a handsome Penguin Classics edition that will likely be read around the world.”
Sunday Express “A mesmerising account of her early life, full of the most striking details . . . Her powers of recollection are extraordinary. . . . Reading her words pitches the reader head first into a wondrous, terrifying world.”
Complete Review “Surprisingly charming, and a testament to childish resilience . . . There are many colorful—and often shocking—vignettes. . . . 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.”
Library Journal (starred review) “[An] exceptional memoir . . . With a child’s innocence, Reyes narrates her experience with precise, direct prose that is interspersed with mature and thoughtful insights. . . . Alarcón’s translation is artful, as is his introduction.”
Kirkus Reviews “An unsentimental and inspiring depiction of rising out of atrocious circumstances.”
Shelf Awareness “Horrifying and enthralling . . . A memoir of extreme hardships told in a clear, restrained style, with an ending that leaves the reader wishing for more.”
Daniel Alarcón, from the Introduction “Some works of art feel more unlikely, more miraculous than others, and Emma Reyes’s remarkable epistolary memoir is one of them. . . . I don’t think I’ve read many books of such power and grace, or that pack such an emotional wallop in so short a space. . . . There is no self-pity, only wonder, and that tone, so delicate and subtle, is perhaps the book’s greatest achievement. . . . The very fact that this book exists is extraordinary. Everything about it . . . is astonishing.”
Julia Alvarez, bestselling author of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, In the Time of the Butterflies, and A Wedding in Haiti “It’s not often we hear the voices of the voiceless, those deemed invisible, who survive on the trash heaps and margins of cultures. Emma Reyes is that voice—a storyteller with an eye for the details of a world devastating in its cruelty and indifference. Her voice is a triumph of hope and resilience and does what the best books do—expand our awareness and deepen our compassion. These are letters from the heart to the heart of those readers lucky enough to discover this gem of a book. Daniel Alarcón’s translation from the Spanish is effortless and seamless; one forgets it is a translation. It is that rare miracle that the Polish poet Wislawa Symborska spoke of, ‘when a translation stops being a translation and becomes . . . a second original.’ ”
Ana Castillo, author of So Far from God “The Book of Emma Reyes is a diamond in the rough. It serves up, with the tastiness of street-vendor meats off a hot grill, the story of two sisters who grew up in unforgiving circumstances. If you are vegetarian, don’t worry: The spices, like the author’s exquisite memory for detail, will fill your imagination. For a while afterward you’ll wonder how it is that some children survive their childhood, and you’ll surely be thankful for your own.” Edith Grossman, translator of Don Quixote and author of Why Translation Matters “A compelling work that seems to hover along the frontier between autobiography and fiction. It’s a truly heroic account (in the most colloquial language) of a child surviving the worst that the adult world insists on throwing at her. There’s not a drop of sentimentality in it—just the kind of courage born of the most desperate adversity.” Deborah Moggach, New York Times bestselling author of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel “What an astonishing book—I read it in a single gulp. Emma Reyes had a childhood of staggering deprivation, but her humor and resilience shine through, and suddenly we have a modern classic.”
Diana Athill, New York Times bestselling author of Somewhere Towards the End “The moment I finished this memoir I read it again—one simply can’t abandon Emma. And I’ve been speculating ever since about how she made it once she’d escaped her terrible childhood. One is deeply grateful to know as a fact—an almost inconceivable fact—that she triumphed, but longs to know how. No other book I’ve ever read has left me so deeply involved with its author, and so grateful for that involvement.”
Suzanne Jill Levine, author of The Subversive Scribe and Manuel Puig and the Spider Woman “The Book of Emma Reyes, in Daniel Alarcón’s adroit translation, is a must-read, a modest yet game-changing masterpiece in the memoir genre. An abandoned child who climbed out of poverty in extremis, raconteur-artist Emma Reyes miraculously broke through oppression and obscurity to captivate such devoted friends as Frida Kahlo, Sartre, and Pasolini. She is without a doubt the most original Colombian voice to come our way since the legendary Gabriel García Márquez, who was indeed among the first readers to admire her storytelling. Her epistolary memoir narrates with violent immediacy an unreal yet too real world; child and woman speak in fractured unison, with a style both visceral and effortless, hallucinatory and yet devastatingly lucid.” Silvana Paternostro, author of My Colombian War and In the Land of God and Man “A rare jewel that reminds us of the saving grace of storytelling and imagination in racist, classist, conservative, and cloistered Catholic Colombia. It hypnotized me from the first sentence, leaving images as difficult to erase as when I first read Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Match Girl’ and sobbed myself to sleep, terrified by the cruelty of the world of unhappy adults and stirred by the daring strength of one child. Daniel Alarcón’s respectful translation transmits the smells of Andean poverty as much as the unperturbed voice of funny, feisty, cross-eyed little Emma, whose ordeal is not a thing just of the past or of Latin America—millions of children walk alone today, fugitives from child labor, sexual abuse, hunger, and torture, often inflicted in the name of God’s charity. Read The Book of Emma Reyes: It offers a universal and timely window on the world of abandoned girls, and it will inspire indignation and action.”
Mariana Enriquez, author of Things We Lost in the Fire “Worthy of a Dickens novel . . . So true and sincere that it is believable in every sentence, even in the most incredible ones . . . A book of extraordinary literary value.”
Louisa Young, author of My Dear I Wanted to Tell You “Unadulteratedly good, interesting, and important. Emma’s letters remind me what reading and writing are for.”
Nina Stibbe, author of Love, Nina “A jewel of a book. Emma is a mesmerizing storyteller, and her letters had me completely gripped from beginning to end.”