EMMA REYES was a Colombian painter who lived in Paris and died in 2003; this memoir consists of several letters that she wrote to a friend over thirty years, which recall her childhood. Her earliest years were spent in a slum in Bogotá, with a woman who may or may not (it is never quite clear) have been her mother. Afterwards, she and her sister were abandoned by this woman and taken into a convent.
All is told from a child’s perspective, but it seems that the convent was one of the institutions for training children and young people set up by the Salesians of Don Bosco. This is not a misery memoir, thankfully, and, though life was tough and full of hard work, the convent was not a cruel place. The period was at some point in the 1930s, and children were on the whole lucky to be taken into such places. At the end of the book, Emma escapes from the convent to begin the world.
The book clearly aims at creating a magical atmosphere, and there is not much narrative tautness to the letters. One is meant to enjoy the journey rather than long for the destination. What really lets the book down is the translation into American English by a writer who has an ear for language which will not please all. His style, his choice of diction, and his grammar are full of infelicities, and some of the references to human excrement, which dominate the early pages, and which are perhaps meant to be charming, are anything but.
The translator’s preface makes great claims for this book, but, sadly, it is the translator himself who lets the author down.
Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is a Roman Catholic priest, doctor of moral theology, and consulting editor of The Catholic Herald.
The Book of Emma Reyes: A memoir in correspondence
Daniel Alarcón, translator
Weidenfeld & Nicolson £14.99