Burying The Bones (Ebook)

Pearl Buck in China

Hilary Spurling

A thrilling portrait of the extraordinary childhood of Pearl Buck, the now-forgotten bestselling Nobel Prize winning novelist and author of The Good Earth

Pearl Buck was raised in China by her American parents, Presbyterian missionaries from Virginia. Blonde and blue-eyed she looked startlingly foreign, but felt as at home as her Chinese companions. She ran free on the grave-littered grasslands behind her house, often stumbling across the tiny bones of baby girls who had been suffocated at birth. Buck's father was a terrifying figure, with a maniacal zeal for religious conversion - a passion rarely shared by the local communities he targeted. He drained the family's budget for his Chinese translation of the New Testament, while his aggrieved, long-suffering wife did her utmost to create a homely environment for her children, several of whom died tragically young.

Pearl Buck would eventually rise to eminence in America as a bestselling author (her most renowned work, The Good Earth, re-entered the bestseller charts in 2004 when it was selected for Oprah's Book Club) but in this startlingly original biography, Spurling recounts with elegance and great insight her unspeakable upbringing in a China that was virtually unknown to the West.

Publication date: 07/04/2011


ISBN: 9781847651938

ISBN 10 / ASIN: B004V9OA48

Imprint: Profile Books

Subject: Biography & Memoir

Reviews for Burying The Bones

'Pearl Buck is one of the greatest writers on China, and Hilary Spurling has brought her and the China of her time to life with amazing immediacy and perception.'

Jung Chang 

'Hilary Spurling has given us a riveting, multi-dimensional portrait of a writer torn between her Chinese childhood and her American roots. Haunting, yet firmly rooted in Chinese history, Burying the Bones shows the real Pearl Buck behind the well-known iconic image.'

Hannah Pakula, author of The Last Empress 

'From its wonderful opening sentence to its poignant close, this is a superb biography. Spurling has brought her characters to robust life. Pearl emerges as an extraordinary woman, a compound of contradictions. Readers will learn what they need to know about China in that tumultuous time and place at the beginning of the 20th century. And Spurling makes the case for Buck's importance as a writer.'

Peter Conn, Vartan Gregorian Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania, author of Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography 

'It is magnificent - a stunning story and virtuoso writing. All Spurling's books are wonderful but this really takes her in new and strange and unfamiliar directions - boldly conceived, brilliantly executed.'

Elaine Showalter [Pre-publication endorsement]

'Boldly conceived and magnificently written Bones should repair Buck's literary fortunes and restore her to the pantheon of feminist heroines ... Hilary Spurling has journeyed far beyond her previous cultural boundaries to rescue Pearl Buck from what E P Thompson memorably called the 'enormous condescension of posterity'. Original, enlightening and with a narrative as thrilling as an epic film, Burying the Bones is a triumphant landmark in the development of creative biography.'

Elaine Showalter Literary Review

'Biographer Hilary Spurling has created an immensely readable account of Buck's life, which encompassed all the violent upheavals that turned Imperial China into a Communist state ... She marshals her material beautifully, even when faced with Buck's frequent claims of amnesia about upsetting episodes in her life. She makes no pretence that Buck wrote great literature but shows the remarkable impact of her work and the passion with which she pursued causes close to her heart.'

Siobhan Murphy Metro

'A gripping biography ... haunting stuff.'

Peter Burton Daily Express

'Thrilling ... After Burying the Bones, you won't want to read anything that isn't by Buck, expect for books about China ... Spurling, who has never written a dull sentence, also has magic power as a writer, and the plug given by an American cowboy to The Good Earth applies equally well to Burying the Bones: "Go get this and read it. It will keep you out of some devilment and learn you all about China, and you'll thank me for it."'

Frances Wilson Sunday Times

'A terrific story, told with rare intelligence and refinement'

George Walden Mail on Sunday

'A subtle and masterly book'

Victoria Glendinning Spectator


It is hard to imagine a better way to immerse oneself in the period than to read this superb biography of the most famous voice on China of her day, the American novelist Pearl Buck ... It is a terrific story, told with rare intelligence and refinement ... there is keen perception and human understanding ...
We are fortunate that Spurling, the prize-winning biographer of Matisse among others has turned her attention eastwards. If only China specialists wrote so well.


George Walden Mail on Sunday

'A riveting account'

Lucy Lethbridge The Tablet

'A fascinating dissection of the tortured relationships between a man of god, the hapless wife sucked into supporting his mission and their increasingly sceptical daughter, Pearl ... It is also just as revealing about the no less tortured relationship between the West and China in those turbulent days.'

 The Economist

'A spellbinding, lyrical and completely unputdownable book ... The most compelling and and hair-raising chapters in any biography that I have ever read.'

Miranda Seymour The Lady

'One hell of a story ... Spurling is a very fine writer who couldn't turn a shoddy sentence if she tried'

Michael Pye Scotsman

'Hilary Spurling efficiently conveys the banal brutality of peasant life within the China of more than a century ago ... Spurling's genius has been to recognise to what degree Pearl Buck allowed her writing to conscript her life. What emerges from this insight is an entirely new kind of literary biography: not one that uses the life to explain the work, but one that uses the work to write the life ... Spurling writes a biography that itself reads as a novel: one as passionate, as furious, as doomed in some ways as Buck herself, who, at the end of her days, no longer cared to distinguish between her "paper people" and those surrounding her in actual life. Mere fiction dims by comparison.'

Jerusha McCormack Irish Times

'Elegant and timely ... Spurling's focus is on the triumphant years in which Buck, in spite of exile, felt fulfilled both as woman and artist. Buck's twilight decades ... are summarised in an epilogue as interesting as the fertile period this biography chronicles with sympathy and grace.'

Aamer Hussein Independent

'Spurling has written an elegant and sympathetic portrait of one of the most extraordinary Americans of the 20th century... an illuminating and compelling biography.'

Isabel Hilton Guardian

'In the recent golden age of British biography, Hilary Spurling stands out on two counts. First, her devastating ability to uncover secrets kept, in the words of her early subject Ivy Compton Burnett, "through long lives and on death-beds", gives her biographies the breathless pace and menacing undercurrent of thrillers. Second, her overarching intellectual project, to explore the social-psychological fault-lines of our times through 20th-century history, turns on unlikely, marginal figures whose stories open doorways on entire cultures: Ivy on to prewar bourgeois England, Paul Scott on to end-of-empire India. Her wonderful Matisse was in this respect atypical. As riveting and more characteristic is her timely and far-ranging life of novelist Pearl Buck, Burying the Bones ... What makes this a biographical masterpiece is the balance between its subject's grand persona - inscrutable as a Chinese empress - Spurling's revelations of vulnerability, and the memory's ghosts: bones that won't stay buried.'

Jackie Wullschlager Financial Times

'Spurling employs a delicate, but wholly occidental, style to narrate the early years in which Buck's "Chinese magic" was nurtured ... These two books [reviewed alongside Anchee Min] will not revive interest in Buck's fiction; nothing can. But they serve as worthy monuments to the remarkable woman who wrote it.'

John Sutherland The Times

'Spurling has drawn a fine portrait. She is a terrific storyteller, bringing us vividly into Buck's world, and keeping up the pace, unveiling like a good detective the individuals who were models for her prolific fiction ... Spurling should be applauded for bringing this remarkable woman back to us. We could do with another Pearl Buck for the China of today.'

Sun Shuyun Observer

'It is an elegant book, written with the grace and imaginative sympathy of a first-class novel, telling a story which is by turns exotic, sad, harrowing and valiant. Most of the action occurs in China, and drawing on Buck's writings, Spurling's book is cinematic in its landscape scenery and reeks of sewage, bad food and filthy labourer ... Spurling is delicately perceptive as she shows Pearl's dawning realisation in girlhood that she is very intelligent, with an accurate and perceptive insight about people and their surroundings, whereas her parents are obtuse, self-centred and blundering ... a rich character portrait and a great study in womanhood ... If you can't think what to read next, and want to try something distinctive, buy Burying the Bones. It is out-of-time, out of fashion, but has an enduring bright intelligence and is one of the books of the year'

Richard Davenport-Hines Sunday Telegraph


A colorful tapestry of Pearl Buck's life ... a fast-paced and compassionate portrait ... that will grip readers who, unlike Spurling, didn't grow up reading Buck's work.


N/A Publishers' Weekly

'In this evocative, elegant biography, the oriental landscape of Pearl Buck's difficult domestic and emotional life is finely balanced with insights into her career'

Iain Finlayson Saga

'Mrs Spurling re-creates a vanished rural China with breathtaking tangibility ... This is a powerful, elegant and impressive book'

Matthew Dennison Country Life


Joy Lo Dico Independent on Sunday

'Spurling's account speeds along with verve and revelation - a screen adaptation (starring Meryl Streep?) surely cannot be far behind ... This book will surely move her file in posterity's fickle cabinet from the 'forgotten' drawer to the one marked 'well remembered'.'

Alasdair Buchan Diplomat

'Her meticulous research reveals itself in fascinating details of Buck's personal and professional life, but Spurling also provides a hugely entertaining read. Burying the Bones boasts a narrative as compelling as any pot-boiler, and features a heroine so multi-talented, and yet beset by personal tragedy, that a cautious novelist might well feel the need to tone down her colourful life. Spurling, juggling Buck's life and fiction, strikes the perfect balance ... What makes Spurling's account of Buck's life such a treasure is that she concentrates for the most part on the writer's formative years ... Buck is well overdue a reappraisal. Hilary Spurling's compelling account of Buck's life goes a long way to providing that service.'

Declan Burke Sunday Business Post

'A vivid biography of the early years of the now mostly forgotten novelist who was once America's most celebrated writer ... Ms. Spurling is an exquisite writer, and Pearl Buck in China is beautifully paced.'

Melanie Kirkpatrick Wall Street Journal

'Spurling, Matisse's splendid biographer, adeptly matches factual rigor with enthralling insights in this brilliantly contextualized and beautifully crafted portrait of a unique cultural interpreter.'

N/A Booklist

'A triumph of intellectual and human sympathy, exploring the frontiers between reality and imagination, between goodness and madness.'

Maggie Fergusson Intelligent Life

'An extraordinary portrait, rich in detail, ambitious in scope, with a vast historical context that informs but never overwhelms her remarkable subject'

Stacy Schiff New York Times Book Review

'Throughout her gripping account, Spurling's touch is sure, light and nuanced.'

Stacy Schiff The New York Times Book Review


Brenda Niall The Age [Melbourne]

'A remarkable and shocking work, full of immensely difficult material so thoroughly absorbed and well organised that the reader risks underestimating the art and skill that lie behind this strange account of missionary hardship in China and worldly success in the west.'

Margaret Drabble Guardian

'A major task, elegantly accomplished'

Iain Finlayson The Times (Books of the Year)

'A biographical masterpiece that unpicks the vulnerability behind the inscrutable persona of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist.'

Brian Groom FT (Books of the Year)

'With amazing economy, Spurling has produced an unusually perceptive portrait of the author of The Good Earth.'

Books of the Year San Francisco Gate

'This gripping tale is vividly told by Spurling in 279 gracefully written pages. A small masterpiece.'

Valerie Grove Oldie

Hilary Spurling

Hilary Spurling

Hilary Spurling won the Whitbread Biography and Book of the Year 2005 for her biography of Henri Matisse, the product of 15 years' work. Her biography of Ivy Compton-Burnett won the Heinemann and Duff Cooper prizes. She has been a theatre and book critic for the Spectator, Observer and Telegraph, and lives in London.