Why so Blue, Varjak?
SF Said’s Varjak Paw is hard to define; part coming-of-age story, part animal story, part adventure story, it grapples with huge ideas through the accessible medium of a small cat. I remember how my age group a handful of years ago was simply obsessed with this book; and for good reason.
Varjak Paw is a Mesopotamian Blue kitten, supposedly the noblest of all cats. Cooped up in a grand house, he is living with his rather abusive family when a suspicious man and two menacing cats suddenly arrive. Something is a bit off about them and soon it becomes clear that the new intruders are not benevolent. Varjak sets off on a quest into the city to save his family but finds yet more danger there, such as the random, sinister ‘Vanishings’. The best hope for his survival, let alone success, is to learn ‘the Way’ of his ancestor, Jalal the Paw; seven secret skills that give their user mysterious and incredible powers.
I’ve met the lovely SF Said before, when he was giving a writer’s talk, and he said how he had been inspired by Watership Down in his writing. The same epic themes of that classic can be seen in Varjak Paw: family and friendship, danger and loss, responsibility and betrayal, identity and self-doubt…Throughout the story there is a focus on these big aspects of life, as the young cat tries to determine what is true and right in the world, his lack of experience gradually giving way to experimentation and learning.
But, again like Watership Down, these concepts are cleverly isolated in the small sphere of a domestic landscape, with animal characters, households and streets. This lets the young readers of this novel access and comprehend new social structures, ethical systems and dynamic extremes through familiar animals and settings. SF Said has condensed the grand tone of classical epics like The Iliad or The Odyssey into an intense narrative of the same forceful proportions, yet contained within a microcosm.
Although Varjak Paw is a children’s novel and appropriate for its targeted reader age group (8+), it contains a rather macabre tone for the motivation of the ‘Vanishings’ and injury, starvation and death do have a subtle yet definite presence. Yet the sense of danger only makes it more thrilling to read. Meanwhile, it also has the tone of a coming-of-age story, whereby young Varjak Paw is forced to mature drastically quickly and learn vital skills for life, summarised as the powers of ‘the Way’. These encompass good life lessons that readers can potentially employ in their own lives (but which I will not describe for fear of spoilers!). The peril and philosophy intermingle harmoniously, the first driving the motivation for the latter and the latter giving a direct voice to the great themes of life so thoughtfully explored in this book.
As a last point, it is also worth crediting Dave McKean’s gorgeous monochrome illustrations that complement the majority of pages. His slightly sinister yet entrancing style adds an angular dynamism to the characters and world of Varjak Paw.
[On a side note, you might have noticed that I have refrained from using any cat puns during this review (something of which I am quite proud) – so please indulge me just the one: Varjak Paw is the cat’s meow. Okay, that’s it, I promise.]
It’s a great book, highly recommend it and having been to one of SF Said’s events before, I can also recommend going to his event at Chiplitfest 2019 – get your tickets now…I certainly have!