Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet, by Xinran

The last time I was at the library I went for the sole purpose of filling the gaps in on my A to Z Challenge and my Dewey Decimal Challenge. I knew that the letter "X" would be difficult, if not, impossible, to find in my library, but I kept my fingers crossed that I would find something.

So I found this book. It was the only X on the shelf.

I borrowed it, and hoped fervently that it would be a good read.

My hopes came true.

It is a very quick read; a little over 200 pages, and the pages themselves are small. But that's not what makes this a quick read. Sky Burial is a tale of genuine, true love, and, what's even more remarkable, is based on a true story.

In 1994, Xinran, a Chinese journalist, received a phone call from a listener on her nightly radio program. He had just met a woman in the street named Shu Wen. They were buying rice soup from a street vendor, and he had learned that this woman had just returned to China from Tibet after a stay of more than 30 years. The listener thought that Xinran should interview Shu Wen, and before the phone call ended, gave her Wen's contact information.

Xinran traveled for four hours to meet Shu Wen and spent two days with her. On the third day, she learned that Wen had left the hotel. Inspired by her story, Xinran wrote this book, an account of Shu Wen's long search for her husband.

This story begins in the mid 1950s, shortly after the Communists took control of the Chinese government. Wen was twenty-two when she met her husband, Kejun, in medical school. They married four years later. Shortly after their wedding, Kejun was sent to Tibet as a surgeon with the Chinese army. This was during the beginning years of the Chinese-Tibet conflict, and you can click here to learn more about it.

A few months after their wedding, Wen receives the following letter from the Suzhou Military Office (p. 11):

Death Notice
This is to certify that Comrade Wang Kejun died in an incident in the east of Tibet on 24 March 1958, aged 29.

No further details were given about Kejun's death. Suspicious, Wen wants to find out exactly how her husband died--or learn if he is really dead. She decided to head to Tibet to look for him or his militia unit.

What follows is an incredible story driven by the power of love, determination, and hard work. Wen meets another woman, Zhuoma, who is also searching for a lost love. The two women eventually join up with a nomadic Tibetan family, and live with them for many years. At one point, Zhuoma is kidnapped, and the story turns into the search for two people to whom Wen was extremely close--her husband, and a woman much like a sister.

The book eventually turns into a story about cultural identity. As the years progress, Wen wonders if she is really Chinese or Tibetan. Whenever she meets Chinese people in Tibet, she wonders if she remembers the language, the customs, and the traditions of her people. She has been in Tibet for so long that she is starting to consider herself to be Tibetan. What should she consider herself once she returns to her native land?

The story, sadly, ends abruptly. Xinran learns that Wen has checked out of her hotel, without leaving any information as to where she was going. Wen had just returned to China, but wasn't clear as to what her plans were. One of the reasons that Xinran wrote the book was to find Shu Wen, and listen to the rest of the story.

This was one of the most compelling true life stories I've read in a long time. Sky Burial is not so much a love story as it is a tale of friendship and loyalty between two distinct cultures. Xinran writes very simply, but its themes run much deeper. I really hope that there is an epilogue to this tale, and we learn more about Shu Wen's fate after her chance meeting with Xinran's listener.

This is the latest entry in my 2009 100+ Reading Challenge, my 2009 Support Your Local Library Challenge, and my 2009 A to Z Challenge. Make sure you click on the buttons in the sidebar to review archived lists of all past reads!


Anonymous said...

an award for you! :-)

septembermom said...

This sounds very compelling. I like the storyline, the setting and the character description. Thanks for the review!

Missy said...

What a gem of a book to sounds wonderful. I will look for it at my library.

Book Bird Dog said...

Sounds like a fascinating book. Thanks for the review.

Jenners said...

And that is why I'm loving doing reading challenges ... you find yourself reading all kinds of books you wouldn't read normally and finding gems like this.