Book Review: Tomorrow by Damian Dibben

NOVELS about dogs, as opposed to novels with dogs, come in many breeds. Perhaps the one that springs most readily to mind is London’s Call of the Wild, essentially a survivalist narrative that is only partially successful in persuading us of being focalised through canine eyes. It’s a great book about indomitability and survival but I’ve always felt that it never fully shakes off a humanistic perspective. Buck always seems like a man in human form.

Then there are more postmodern approaches like Bakis’s Lives of the Monster Dogs, where the dogs in question are at least in part functioning in the realm of literary device. The dogs are there to symbolise aspects of human thought, behaviour and culture. It’s more deliberate than in the London but it’s there nonetheless. There is the argument, of course, that it’s just not possible for a human author to capture the point of view of a canine protagonist — and even if they could they would be so unrelatable as to render the entire operation pointless — so what would be the point even bothering? My (probably) favourite dog-centred novel, Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius, is the only one that I’m aware of that even attempts to engage with these questions. And even then, the conclusions seems to be that Sirius, the dog given human-level intelligence and communicative skills, finds the experience so intolerable that he ultimately chooses death as a dog over life as a human.

Tomorrow doesn’t concern itself even remotely with such discussion but is no the worse for it. But then Tomorrow is a very special dog in the first place. If you’re being asked to buy into the concept of immortality conferred by a mysterious process perfected by Tomorrow’s owner then having the tale told from the point of view of a dog is hardly a major cognitive leap to make.

What you get instead is a century-spanning tale loyalty and betrayal that seems to fit into the same company as Matt Haig’s How To Stop Time and Claire North’s The Fifteen Lives of Harry August. It’s a compelling tale, well told and which grabs you from very early on. Tomorrow is a compelling protagonist; flawed, riven with doubt, often less than generous but ultimately heroic. He is not, it has to be said, particularly dog-like and there is nothing in the central plot of the novel that would have manifestly changed if Tomorrow had been, say, a human child searching for their parent.

Nonetheless, it’s an effective fantasy-thriller that conjures up its wide span of chronologies and settings with compelling detail, particularly in the battlefield sequences. Author Damien Dibben successfully evokes the various time periods and has a nice eye for historical, artistic and architectural detail that helps bring the setting alive. But it’s in story and character that this novel really excels. Tomorrow is a largely compelling protagonist and there are a number of scenes that are highly moving. The cruelty to which Tomorrow and his companion Sporco are subjected will evoke outrage, particularly if you’re a ‘dog person’ and there’s one major death scene that should certainly bring on at least a couple of tears.

But books of this kind live or die on the strength of their antagonist and Tomorrow has a highly effective one in Vilder, a ruthless individual, on the same quest as Tomorrow, to hunt down his vanished owner. Vilder is no moustache-twirling villain, although we do seem him commit crimes of the most bloodthirsty and vindictive cruelty throughout the book, but he is certainly formidable and we share Tomorrow’s wariness of him almost from his first introduction. But we can also understand his pain and his motivations much of the time and there are points where our reactions become as conflicted, it seems, as Vilder’s.

The key theme of the novel is, of course, loyalty, which is no doubt why a dog has been chosen for the central protagonist. This is seen most explicitly in Tomorrow’s steadfast refusal to forget his master Valentyne, waiting for him, Greyfriars Bobby-like, over the centuries until they are finally reunited. But it is also present in Sporco’s attachment to Tomorrow as we see this louche, womanising chancer of a canine grow into a new seriousness and into a cause greater than his next meal or bitch. But we also see the dark side of such loyalty in Vilder’s attachment to his former love. His grudge against Valentyne, and by extension Tomorrow, is relatable to an extent and is, in fact, borne from a more extreme version of the impulses that have guided Tomorrow and Sporco throughout the novel.

The other theme this novel tackles is that of immortality — pretty inevitable for a story that spans two-hundred-odd years. When taken within the context of the other novels mentioned above, this seems to be something of a recurring literary preoccupation of the last few years. It is, of course, a long-standing human preoccupation anyway, from holy grails to vampires to various other ways to cheat death but it is interesting that it has been capturing the public imagination recently. All these books are, of course, pre-pandemic, which would have perhaps accounted for a heightened sensitivity to mortality but possibly there’s a wider argument here for a current desire to remove death as a framing mechanism for human experience and transform it into something under relative human control (from whatever supernatural source) or a phenomenon that ceases to have a direct impact on the stories we want to tell about ourselves.  Is it perhaps another manifestation of a desire for invincibility (also seen in the current vogue for superhero narratives) that seeks to neutralise the insecurity of a rapidly changing world, to create an immunity to the terror of history.

Tomorrow doesn’t delve particularly deeply into these themes (although they are definitely present). Rather it contents itself with being a well-written, often thrilling but nonetheless thoughtful fantasy tale, built upon enduring themes of love, loyalty and loss, presenting these themes across a broad canvas of human history and society.

Buy Tomorrow here.

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