Book Review: Sky Burial by Xinran

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A fascinating, heart-breaking tale of love and loss, and the strength and determination that can be born out of it. 5 / 5

Summary (from back of book)

As a young girl in China Xinran heard a rumour about a soldier in Tibet who had been brutally fed to the vultures in a ritual known as a sky burial: the tale frightened and fascinated her. Several decades later Xinran met Shu Wen, a Chinese woman who had spent years searching for her missing husband Kejun, after he disappeared in Tibet; her extraordinary life story would unravel the legend of the sky burial. For thirty years she was lost in the wild and alien landscape of Tibet, in the vast and silent planteaux and the magisterial mountain ranges, living with communities of nomads, moving with the seasons and struggling to survive.

In this haunting book, Xinran recreates Shu Wen’s remarkable journey in a grand story of love, loss, loyalty and survival. Moving, shocking and finally enriching, Sky Burial paints a unique portrait of a woman and a land, both at the mercy of fate and politics.

Favourite Quote

In return, Wang Liang gave Wen a pen and a diary. ‘Writing can be a sourced of strength,’ he said.

(From Sky Burial by Xinran, page 20)


I picked this book up by accident, if truth be told. Having read on the cover that it was, “An epic love story of Tibet”, I had assumed it was fiction. My mistake. It wasn’t. Yet it is one of the most moving stories I have ever read.

I learned a lot whilst reading this book. The geography and landscape of Tibet is awe-inspiring and the nomadic way of life hard and difficult. However, the connection and understanding these nomadic peoples have with their environment is clear. The isolation they experience is profound to my modern sensibilities, where I am conditioned to fear being so far from help – and modern necessities – and for Wen, even decades before I was born, it was obviously a shock. But she survived it. She became one of them.

Her determination to find out what happened to her husband was very moving, and her love for him unquestionable and undeniable. She went to such great lengths to find out the truth, a search that took up so much of her life.

One of the standout things I will take away from reading this is how time is portrayed in the narrative, cleverly mirroring how it might have appeared to Wen. We move from the beginning of the story set in China, where dates and ages are so exact, to rural Tibet, where it is the seasons that are notable and the passing of one year blends into another. I remember feeling shocked that twenty years had elapsed when Wen had last seen her friend.

I believe this story will stay with me for a very long time.