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Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet    by Xinran Xue order for
Sky Burial
by Xinran Xue
Order:  USA  Can
Nan A. Talese, 2005 (2005)
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Every reader crosses paths with an author who touches their heart, mind, and spirit. Xinran Xue did that for me in Sky Burial. After hearing from a listener of her radio program about a woman who had just returned from Tibet after a journey of thirty years, the author interviewed Shu Wen in her Suzhou hotel room over a two-day period in 1994, determining that she was 'a most exceptional woman'. Xue tells Wen's story with compassion, eloquence, and delicacy, saying 'I never saw her again, but her story did not leave my mind, so finally I felt I must share it with others.' This is exactly how I feel after reading Xinran Xue's account of Shu Wen's journey.

Shu Wen and Wang Kejun met and fell in love at medical school. They were separated when Kejun joined the People's Liberation Army. Wen did not hear from Kejun for two years, but they married upon his return to Suzhou. In less than one hundred days, the couple were separated again as Kejun's army unit was sent to Tibet. In June 1958, Wen received a Death Notice certifying that 'Kejun died in an incident in the east of Tibet', with no further details. Bewildered, she thought perhaps it was a reporting mistake. Knowing that doctors were desperately needed, Wen joined Kejun's army unit, but found that it consisted of new recruits. The novel is a re-creation of Wen's search for her love, and her attempts to discover details of why, when, and how he died.

She traveled as an army doctor by bus, train, and crowded trucks over rough terrain, to high altitude, in all weather conditions, and over treacherous mountain passes. In the distance, they spotted a Tibetan woman named Zhuoma, barely alive. When Wen explained that she was from Suzhou, Zhuoma shouted out, 'Then why have you left it to come and kill Tibetans?' As a soldier raised his rifle to shoot, Wen pleaded for the woman's life, and Zhuoma was assigned to the unit as guide and interpreter. Later, Wen and Zhuoma left the army, and pursued their search for Kejun and for Zhuoma's groom, for whom she had a forbidden love. After their horse threw the two women to the ground and plummeted into a ravine, nomads cared for them ('The Tibetan people open their homes to all travelers, whether rich or poor.') Years passed, as the duo became a part of the nomad family. When Zhuoma was kidnapped, nomads accompanied Shu Wen in search of her.

That search involves faith and courage, travel to thirteen holy mountains, and attendance at a Dharmaraja ceremony. Xinran Xue's small book is powerfully penned and presents a big message, not just of Wen's life but of historical highlights as well. In an open letter, the author says, 'Most respected Shu Wen, Where are you? For ten years this book has been in my heart, maturing like wine. Now, at last, I can present it to you. I hope that sometime you will be able to hear the gasps of admiration that the beauty of your story inspires ... that, sometime, you will be able to answer the countless questions that I have for you ... I have spent many years searching for you, hoping that we might sit together again in the tea-scented Yangtze delta so that you can tell me the story of your life after Sky Burial ... if you see this book and this letter, I earnestly beg you to contact me'.

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