Xinran's Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $18.95; translated from the Chinese by Julia Lovell and Esther Tyldesley) derives from a strange and pregnant encounter. In 1994, the author, a Chinese journalist with a special interest in women's lives, was given a tip: An old Chinese woman in the town of Suzhou had recently crossed over from Tibet, and it might be worth Xinran's while to interview her. So Xinran made a four-hour bus journey to meet the woman, Shu Wen, whose story haunted her until she finally committed it to paper.

In the 1950s, Shu Wen had gone to Tibet to find her husband, Kejun, a physician in the People's Liberation Army who had disappeared in action two months after being sent to Tibet. At the time, the marriage had not lasted a hundred days. Decades of searching went by, in which Shu Wen learned that travelers in Tibet are made much of because they are considered bearers of news, and that two men are permanent national institutions: "People believe that the Dalai Lama of southern Tibet and the Panchen Lama of northern Tibet are the most senior representatives of the spirits. When they die, a new reincarnation is sought through prayer and special rites."

Finally, in a denouement that sounds like something out of James Hilton's Lost Horizon, Shu Wen ended up near a monastery, where someone rode out to hand her "a bundle wrapped in yellowing bandages." Unable to find a traveler who would carry the package across the border to Shu Wen, a hermit at the monastery had kept it all that time. The contents of the package explained what had happened to Kejun. But Sky Burial ends on yet another note of longing. Xinran explains that she has been looking for her informant, in hopes of learning how Shu Wen fared upon her return to China after their interview a decade earlier. "Dear Shu Wen," she concludes, "if you see this book and this letter, I earnestly beg you to contact me through my publisher as soon as possible."

-- Dennis Drabelle