Booth may be limited to English-speaking sources, but Three Tigers, One Mountain is a perceptive book, no more so than when conveying the author’s own impressions. Awaiting a ferry from Fukuoka in Japan to Busan in South Korea, he notes that Koreans “have a nifty method for avoiding the tedium of queueing: they simply let their luggage do it for them, placing their suitcases in front or behind the Japanese while they pop off for some last-minute duty-free shopping” – a habit that suggests “a unique combination of high social trust and blithe entitlement”. For more such observations, a reader – especially one who knows the countries in question – would trade any number of stock remarks from academics, polemicists and students in cafés, no matter what they reveal about historical grievance.
These are tricky subjects to handle in a travel book that starts and ends in Japan, but it’s a credit to Booth’s skill as a writer that he keeps us both entertained and informed in every chapter.
Three Tigers, One Mountain is a fine summary of East Asian cultures and conflicts, with a chummy, affable tone and profound interest in its subject. The comparison with Bill Bryson is however unfortunately overcooked. Booth lacks his verve and killer eye for detail: few of the cities he visits come to life, as they generally act as hooks for research rather than dives into present-day lives and feelings. If you’re unfamiliar with the intertwined histories of these nations, it is certainly a useful, fact-packed and readable book, but anyone else might require something more weighty.
Booth has been dubbed “the next Bill Bryson” and his chatty style disarms his subjects and entertains the reader. It is a hard act to pull off when dealing with tragedy. His deft, accurate summaries of the contentious history in each place work well. He gets lots of people to talk to him; some are illuminating, others are seemingly deaf or blind.