Summary – This book has it all. Cats, super powers, family, friendship and a terrifying villain!
Varjak Paw is a young thoroughbred house-cat who longs for adventure in the outside world. When his home is threatened by a pair of mysterious back cats and a terrifying Gentleman he must set off in search of the only thing that can scare them away – a dog!
If you haven’t read Varjak Paw then stop what you’re doing and go and buy a copy! It’s not just a book for children. It’s one of those rare treats that will be enjoyed by adults too. It is truly incredible. And you don’t just have to take my word for it. It was awarded the Smarties Prize Gold in 2003.
So why is it so incredible? Let’s break it down.
The story falls into the super hero genre (my personal favorite). At the start of the novel Varjak is young and eager for adventure, but also bullied and misunderstood by his family. He longs to be a true Mesopotamian Blue but is told he has the wrong colour eyes (the colour of danger) and the wrong attitude. ‘I just don’t understand him,’ muttered Father. ‘Why can’t he be like everyone else?’
We’re in classic superhero territory here. Just like Spiderman, Harry Potter and many others, Varjak is someone who is different. He must battle against small-mindedness as well as the outside forces that threaten his world, in order become truly super. His journey is one of self-discovery as much as a mission to save the day.
SF Said tackles the story with elegance and confidence. The story is told by a narrator who has access to Varjak’s thoughts and feelings. Telling the story in this manner allows humor to come through (which is often at the expense of Varjak’s inexperience) and makes the encounters with the gang cats more palatable for a young audience.
The book has some fantastic feline inspired similes and metaphors which really add depth. For example:
‘Jasmine’s voice was cool and smooth, like milk in the morning.’ And ‘Thunder growled above the city as they reached the foot of the hill.’
Clues about the central mystery (the Vanishings) are perfectly placed throughout the book and the use of dreams to develop Varjak’s super powers is a neat idea. Another brilliant feature is the constant danger in this book: from the Gentleman and his cats, the street gangs, the threat of the Vanishings, to the dangers of speeding cars and scary dogs. It really keeps the tension up. Also great are the blistering fight scenes, where cat’s claws are unsheathed like swords.
The illustration’s by Dave Mckean are edgy and cool and add another level to the already brilliant book. They lift the story off the page in the same way a good comic book does.
The themes explored in this book are:-
The importance of knowing yourself - Varjak is unable to master one of his super powers until he truly knows himself. He is only able to save his friends once he has overcome this barrier. He isn’t aware that he doesn’t know himself until he faces a choice – Staying with his family or helping his friends.
That actions are more importance than heritage - Near the start of the book Holly says ‘I don’t care how purebred you are, or where you think you’re from. The only thing that counts is what you do.’ It takes Varjak a long time to truly understand this.
That friendship has risks and benefits - Holly has a fear of being let down, which all of her friends seem to do. She takes a risk in letting Varjak be her friend, and the most poignant moment of the book is when Varjak lets her down. Thankfully he sees the error of his ways and she is wise enough to forgive him – a sign of true friendship.
Varjak Paw has it all. Make sure it’s your next read!