Sky Burial
Xinran
New York: Doubleday, 2005
224 pp.; $18.95 (cloth)

What is Tibet? Several books in recent years have questioned the Western understanding of this troubled land, its people and traditions. Yet from the thousands of dedicated practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, to the millions of casual movie-goers who watched Brad Pitt portray Austrian adventurer Heinrich Harrer, so many of us believe we know something of this strange, faraway land, and many care deeply about the future of this place we’ve never seen.

In her latest book, Sky Burial, the writer Xinran gives us a rare taste of what Tibet may have looked like to the Chinese who began to arrive in the 1950s. A Chinese journalist born in Beijing but living in England since 1997, Xinran is best known for her 2002 book, The Good Women of China, a nonfiction recollection of the many stories Chinese women told her about their lives while she worked at a radio station in eastern China. In Sky Burial, Xinran shifts her focus to the depth and power of romantic love, and the possibility of friendship and understanding across radically different cultures.

The story of Sky Burial begins in 1958 in Nanjing, when the young and recently married Shu Wen is told that her husband has died while serving with the acrossculturesPeople’sLiberation Army in Tibet. Unwilling to accept that her beloved is truly gone, and unable to pry any further details out of the military, she decides to enlist herself in the army, travel with them to Tibet, and find out the truth.

This summary takes us to about page 13; the rest of the book concerns Shu Wen’s thirty-year odyssey in Tibet, where she is quickly separated from her unit and adopted by a Tibetan family. Her quest for her husband is put on hold for decades as she struggles to overcome the everyday hardships of nomadic life in the Himalayas and slowly learns the rudiments of Tibetan language, culture, and religion, including the powerful funeral rites that give the book its title. Written in a sparse, almost minimalist style, Sky Burial is devoid of the lyrical prose that Tibet seems to inspire in some Western writers. Yet even Xinran’s clipped sentences often communicate a sense of desolate beauty, as in the scene of another woman mourning her lost lover: “The blue heavens watched in silence as she wept; several vultures soared over her head, echoing her cries with their own.”

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