The Book of Emma Reyes: A Memoir in Correspondence review – portrait of a painter’s harrowing adolescence

The Colombian artist’s raw, poetic letters to a friend illuminate the horror of her isolated childhood in a convent

As translator Daniel Alarcón says in his introduction, even the existence of Emma Reyes’s book is “miraculous”. She died in 2003, aged 84, in Bordeaux – an émigré from her native Colombia, little known as a painter (a singular style of densely decorative primitivism), not at all as a writer. She “rubbed shoulders with Alberto Moravia, Jean-Paul Sartre” and was “a kind of godmother to Latin American artists and writers” in France – but only two people knew she had written this book: Reyes’s friend Germán Arciniegas, a Colombian historian and journalist, and Gabriel García Márquez.

The book comprises 23 letters to Arciniegas that recall the harrowing onset of her life journey as child and pubescent. It’s described with such quirky grace and raw honesty, such a childlike eye for detail ...