Several things conspired, all together, to get me to pick up this book. One is the fact that I was aware of the author, S.F. Said, and had wanted to read some of his work for a while; another is the fact that Dave McKean, one of my all-time favourite illustrators, created the arresting cover image, as well as lots of wonderful images to embellish the story.
I’m very glad I listened to the small, still voice that said ‘pick me…’
Varjak Paw was first published in 2003, and so it may be familiar to some of you, but that’s no reason not to bring it into the light once again. It’s a clever, compact and emotional little novel which grabbed me right from the get-go, and I was surprised by that in many ways, not least of which the fact that it is narrated through the eyes of a cat. For whatever reason, I don’t get on well with animal stories. I was never moved by them as a kid, and I remain pretty stoic about them now, too. This is despite loving animals in real life, to the point of refusing to eat them, even. I guess it’s just one of those things.
Anyway. Perhaps this book is the exception which proves the rule, because I really loved it.
Varjak Paw is a Mesopotamian Blue kitten living in a large house on a hill above a town with a human named the Contessa. He lives with his family – his grandfather the Elder Paw, his brothers Julius, Jay, Jethro and Jerome, his cousin Jasmine, his father and mother and his aunt Juni – and he is most definitely seen as the tiddler, the hanger-on, the kid. It irks him, but he doesn’t know what to do about it. Then, one day, the Elder Paw tells him a story about Jalal, the first cat of their kind, who possessed the Way – the set of skills which elevate those who master it above the level of a mere cat and into a different sphere of existence entirely, one in which they can stalk silently and walk between shadows… but, unfortunately, time has eroded much of the Way. The Elder Paw can only recall fragments of it.
Then, one day, men come to the house and carry The Contessa out on a stretcher. Varjak and his grandfather know something is wrong, but the rest of the family – plump and spoiled – refuse to allow anything to destroy their home comforts, and tell them they’re imagining dangers where no dangers exist. Then, a man comes back – and with him come two strange, all-black, no-smell cats – cats which attack the Elder Paw and leave Varjak running for his life, out over the wall of the Contessa’s house and down the hill towards the city…
Varjak has never left home before. He has no street smarts, no survival skills, and no friends – until he meets up with Holly, a free cat who hunts for herself and looks out for her own patch, and Holly’s friend Tam. They help Varjak to stay alive and out of the grips of the cat gangs who roam the streets of the city, and at night Varjak dreams of Jalal, and the Way. The Elder Paw had told him to bring a dog back to the Contessa’s house – the one thing, the Elder Paw said, which men are afraid of is a dog – but Varjak has never seen one. Even if he could find one, Holly says, how could he possibly speak to it? She half-convinces him it’s a fool’s errand, but Varjak doesn’t give up.
However, avoiding the gangs (particularly the one led by the ferocious Sally Bones, a pure white cat who knows a lot more about Jalal and his Way than even Varjak does) is not the only danger on these streets. A man is going about kidnapping cats, and they are never seen again – but why, and where is he taking them? Then, Tam is kidnapped, and Varjak is drawn into the heart of the mystery.
This is a wonderful story. I loved Varjak, his wide-eyed innocence and his trusting nature, which he never really loses even when life starts to beat him down, and the gentle wisdom of the Elder Paw. I enjoyed the legend of Jalal and how it’s woven into Varjak’s story (though the ‘tick-tock’ chapter structure, one chapter in Varjak’s world and the next in Jalal’s, got a bit wearing after a while), and I loved the characterisation of the cats, especially Holly and the villainous Sally Bones. The tale is deceptively simple – its straightforward language and uncomplicated plot bely a wealth of wisdom about what it feels like to be a younger brother, a ‘runt’, the powerless one in a large family who is overlooked, and the need to prove oneself to one’s older siblings and parents. It has a lot to say about trusting one’s instincts and having faith, both in oneself and in others. It’s about friendship which isn’t based on outward appearance or prejudice, but simply on seeing the good in others and responding to it. It’s about digging deeply into oneself in order to find the strength to face a foe which seems unbeatable, and giving it everything despite knowing, on some level, that you have no hope of success.
I loved it. It’s beautifully written, warm and moving, and I’m delighted to have finally made its acquaintance. As soon as funds and time allow, I shall be familiarising myself with this book’s sequel, The Outlaw Varjak Paw, and Said’s newest book Phoenix. I hope you will, too.