Review: Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler

2017: 52
4.5 of 5 stars
Published 1997

This is the second book I’ve read by one of Canada’s esteemed authors. Richler has been publishing successful novels since the late 1950s. I previously read The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and enjoyed it and I chose Barney’s Version for my second Richler. The story is about the life of Barney Panofsky as told by his good self, a man in his late 60s whose health and memory are both precarious and whose freedom is in some doubt. He may or may not have murdered his old friend, Boogie, 30 years ago and though he was deemed innocent by a jury of his peers, the scandal and doubt hangs over him like an Atlantic fog. The body was never found, m’lud, so there was no murder is Barney’s defence. We do find out what happened at the end of the book.

Anyway, he’s writing his autobiography that centers around each of his three wives, one of whom doesn’t even get named. The book is sectioned off by each wife but don’t think that means the story is told in any sort of alignment. It’s all over the place, with anecdotes and his personal history told as it occurs to him in random order as one thing reminds him of the next and you’re not even sure he’s remembering incidents correctly. He also revisits some of the incidents as need be. His life is filled with crises and scrapes, and he’s not portrayed as all that sympathetic a character nor is he portrayed as a scallywag that the reader treats indulgently. He makes bad judgments and choices, he drinks, he curses, he’s obnoxious,  he has more failures than triumphs, and you wonder how his children and friends can stand him at all though most of them do seem to keep him at arms’ length.

I guess I can’t relate to Barney that well but it doesn’t take away from Richler’s talent at bringing the characters off the page. His humour is dark and cutting, his observations on life’s aspects are as jaded as the characters but spot on.  I have to say I found it a bit more difficult to like at first but it soon hit its stride and carried me along for the ride.

There has been a movie made of this starring Paul Giamatti, released in 2010 and it’s quite a good film, particularly because it puts the events of the novel in their proper order! Duddy Kravitz gets name checked and makes a few brief appearances, now a grownup and it appears he’s as successful as he always planned. The Gursky name also gets a mention which probably relates to Richler’s book, Solomon Gursky Was Here.  I think I will come back to Mordecai Richler again.

Not one of my #20BooksOfSummerChallenge because I started it about a month ago but I am going to use this for my Cross Canada Challenge for Quebec.

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