Translator: Julia Lovell and Esther Tyldesley
It was 1994 when Xinran, a journalist and the author of The Good Women of China, received a telephone call asking her to travel four hours to meet an oddly dressed woman who had just crossed the border from Tibet into China. Xinran made the trip and met the woman, called Shu Wen, who recounted the story of her thirty-year odyssey in the vast landscape of Tibet.
Shu Wen and her husband had been married for only a few months in the 1950s when he joined the Chinese army and was sent to Tibet for the purpose of unification of the two countries. Shortly after he left she was notified that he had been killed, although no details were given. Determined to find the truth, Shu Wen joined a militia unit going to the Tibetan north, where she soon was separated from the regiment. Without supplies and knowledge of the language, she wandered, trying to find her way until, on the brink of death, she was rescued by a family of nomads under whose protection she moved from place to place with the seasons and eventually came to discover the details of her husband’s death.
The sub-title of Sky Burial is An Epic Love Story from Tibet and epic is surely the word the describe it. The book itself was tiny – only about 3.5 inches wide by 6 inches tall (so smaller than a normal MMPB), but it encompassed over thirty years in that few amount of pages. Which makes me wonder how an author who doesn’t write in English can convey in 200 pages what it takes some writers 600 pages to do…but that is a thought for another day…
This was the story of a true, unending love – not the type of love that you see in a standard romance (as much as I love them), but the type of love that many of us could probably only dream of. I don’t know about anyone else, but spending 30 years in the isolation of Tibet, trying to find out what happened to my husband of only a few months isn’t necessarily something that I had considered. The flow of the story was beautiful – I started reading it while I was stuck riding in a van to a work location (about an hours drive) and by the time we turned around to head home two hours later, I was 70% of the way done with it (and finished it on the second half of that commute).
I had to admit that the romantic in me hoped for a different outcome than what occurred – but at the same time, there was closure to the story. It was hard to tell while reading whether this was fiction or not – from the description of the book, it could have been biographical, but at the same time, there were elements that I think the author took creative license with. Either way, I highly recommend it for anyone interested in learning more about the nomadic people in Tibet, or about Tibetan history (around the time that China invaded it). I look forward to hearing peoples thoughts if they decide to read it. 4 stars overall.