The Colour Storm by Damian Dibben

Damian Dibben’s previous novel, Tomorrow, was a fascinating and unusual story of an immortal dog searching for his master across two centuries (it was better than it sounds, honestly!). I was curious to see what his next book, The Colour Storm, would be like, but it turns out that it’s a much more conventional historical novel this time. It’s also a very good one; although the subject reminded me of another of my recent reads, The Fugitive Colours by Nancy Bilyeau, the setting gives it a very different feel.

The Colour Storm is the story of the Italian painter Giorgio Barbarelli, who lived and worked in Venice during the Renaissance. He was a real person, as are many of the other characters in the novel, and you may already be familiar with his paintings – if not, you can easily find images online of some of the pieces attributed to him which will give you an idea of the quality of his work.

At the beginning of the novel, Barbarelli – or ‘Zorzo’ as he is called throughout the book – is finding life difficult. Work is becoming hard to find, the competition from other artists is fierce and Zorzo’s debts are increasing. He’s responsible not only for himself, but also for his team of young apprentices and assistants, so he urgently needs to find some way of gaining commissions from rich clients. An opportunity arises when a wealthy German merchant, Jakob Fugger, arrives in Venice and is said to be looking for an artist to paint an altarpiece for St Peter’s Basilica. When Zorzo hears that Fugger also possesses a new colour, a pigment known as ‘prince orient’, he becomes even more determined to bring himself to the merchant’s attention.

In an attempt to win Fugger’s favour, Zorzo agrees to paint a portrait of his wife, Sybille – but as he becomes closer to Sybille, he finds that he has become involved in a conspiracy which could have huge implications for the people of Europe. And then, while Zorzo is still considering his next move, a new threat arrives in Venice…the plague:

Only the poorest folk, who have no choice but to go to work, are continuing as normal, but they’re wary, treading more carefully than usual. Many cover their faces with their sleeves or improvised masks and everyone keeps their distance. From behind closed windows and shutters, Zorzo’s aware of families pressed together, restless shadows, watching and fretting as to whether this episode will pass – as most do – without significant horror, or if this one will be severe.

Still very relevant, isn’t it? The plague plays a part in the later stages of the novel, but before that we follow the story of Zorzo’s search for the prince orient and his entanglement with Jakob and Sybille (also real historical figures). We are given some insights into the workings of an artist’s studio in Renaissance Venice and there are appearances by other famous names from the art world, including Bellini, Titian, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. By focusing on the dark side of life in 16th century Venice, Dibben creates plenty of atmosphere, and although the parts of the book that concentrate on Zorzo’s relationships with Sybille and her husband interested me less, I found this an enjoyable read overall.

Thanks to Michael Joseph for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 4/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

This is book 30/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

Tomorrow by Damian Dibben

There are two things which make the narrator of Tomorrow one of the most unusual I have ever encountered. One is that he is over two hundred years old. The other is that he is a dog. We all know how loyal dogs can be, but this dog takes his loyalty to exceptional levels. Having been separated from his master, the chemist Valentyne, in 1688, our narrator has spent two centuries sitting patiently outside the church in Venice where they parted.

“If we lose one another,” Valentyne had told him, “wait for me on the steps. Just here, by the door.” The dog has no doubt that he and Valentyne will be reunited one day and so he sits obediently by the door and waits. Then, one day in 1815, he catches a glimpse of Vilder, a man whose path has crossed many times with Valentyne’s…and he sets off in pursuit, sure that this is the clue which will lead him to his master.

Tomorrow is a book that raises questions immediately. What has happened to Valentyne? How have he and his dog lived for so many years? Who is Vilder and what is his connection with Valentyne? All of these questions are answered eventually, as the story moves backwards and forwards in time, alternating between the dog’s search for his master in 19th century Venice and his memories of their early days travelling Europe together.

Their adventures take them from 17th century London to the court of Versailles and the battlefield of Waterloo and along the way they meet kings and queens, famous poets and musicians and great military leaders. Valentyne falls in love and the dog forms some special relationships too – with Sporco, a puppy he finds abandoned in Venice, and with a female dog called Blaise. However, this is where they discover that living forever is not much fun when it means having to watch your loved ones grow old and die.

I do like the idea of writing from the point of view of a canine narrator and I can appreciate both the opportunities this must give an author and also the restrictions. The dog in Tomorrow is a real dog, despite his apparent immortality – he is not a magical, talking dog and although he listens and reports on the human conversations around him he cannot take part himself. On the other hand, he is so intelligent and his internal thought processes and logic feel so human that there were times when I could almost forget that he was a dog. I’m not sure that I found all of this entirely successful, but it was certainly imaginative and different.

Finally, in case you’re wondering, the dog does have a name but I haven’t mentioned it here as it is only revealed near the end of the book and I thought it was a nice surprise!

Thanks to Michael Joseph for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.