by James Toller
The Kuma Trilogy is a work encompassing three books: The Kiss, A Great Love and Tiger Mountain. The books follow the literal and spiritual journey of the titular main character, Kuma Svensson, a man born and raised in Hawaii to a Japanese mother and Scandinavian father. Alongside Kuma’s story, each book has a sub-plot/s involving different characters and their lives. The majority of these separate narratives become entwined and connected with Kuma’s story.
The Kuma Trilogy is a mammoth, thought-provoking and visionary work. In The Kiss, we meet Soo Jin and her friend Ha Rin in the side narrative that runs alongside our introduction to Kuma. The prose involving both girls has a dreamscape, immersive atmosphere enhanced by the beautifully realised Korean setting. In this first instalment, as with the others, the writing is simply structured and quite naïve which complements the allegorical quality of the story. Kuma’s time in rehabilitation and the characters he meets there, especially Kimo whose teachings are integral to the novel, are powerful and set the foundations for the next two books. A Great Love finds Kuma in Kyoto, living with and training the monks of Kita Temple. Parallel to this, is the story of Tatsuko and her family and the relationship between them and Kuma is both inspiring and heart-breaking.
Tiger Mountain is the most ambitious of the three stories and resultingly, has a subtly different tone. It’s a fantastical premise; the designing, building and managing of a large, self-sufficient, utopian community of disabled children, carers, teachers, medics, gardeners, general staff and their families on, up and in a mountain. Personally, at times during Tiger Mountain, I found Kuma becoming a touch controlling with a whiff of a Bond-esque villain about him which was probably more to do with the environment. Mr Toller is extraordinarily conscientious in explaining and describing the logistics and infrastructure of Tiger Mountain; the depth of imagination and planning from a writerly point of view is boundless but it did become a little exhausting in places and consequently, the pace was a touch slow. However, the profundity and scope of this triumvirate of stories cannot be underestimated. It is clear from the narrative the sheer inventiveness, originality and personal insight that Mr Toller has brought to bear in this work; the subjectivity shines through on several occasions and it is not a weakness in this instant, quite the opposite. Technically, it was obvious that every consideration, plot strand and, I think, indeed every word, had been carefully thought out and the editing was faultless.
The Kuma Trilogy is a monumental novel that provides an intensely spiritual and intellectually stimulating read. Recommended.