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Barney’s Version

Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler

Image via Fantastic Fiction.

Title: Barney’s Version

Author: Mordecai Richler

Year of Publication: 1997

Genre Keywords: CanLit, comedy, family, Jewish humour, Judaism, marriage, murder, romance, satire, unreliable narrator.

Summary: It’s been said that whoever we are and however we live our lives, we’re always the villain in somebody else’s retelling of the story. Barney Panofsky, thrice married, has been accused of all kinds of terrible things in his time, including the murder of his best friend, Boogie. Now, estranged from the only woman he’s ever truly loved and drawing towards the close of his life, Barney decides to document – with no little sense of humour and a voice that jumps right off the page – his version of events. Wryly he recounts each of his three marriages, to creative and unstable feminist martyr, then a high-class and high-maintenance Jewish American Princess, and finally to his beloved Miriam. But the question of whether his narration is reliable hangs over the entire text. When he swears he never shot Boogie, can we trust him to tell us the truth?

Who’ll Love It: A narrator as unstable and unreliable as Barney Panofsky isn’t someone you’ll enjoy if you want your stories to progress in a strictly linear fashion and nail down the facts on all sides. That’s a pity, though, because he’s a blast to read. Fans of irony and subtle satire will enjoy Richler’s observations about life in the Quebecois Jewish community, referendum-era Montreal, and the family state in general. And if you’re interested in trying to figure out a mystery, the question of what really happened to Boogie remains up for grabs throughout most of the story.

Real-World Parallels: This is what it must be like to live in New York. Throughout the novel, references to Canadian news stories – from Trudeaumania to the 1995 referendum – brought the thrill of recognition to my reading. And that’s to say nothing of the little, everyday references to things that are part of Canadian life, like Hockey Night in Canada or the CBC (Radio-Canada to the Quebecois). Once I even recognized a street name from time spent living in Quebec! It’s icing on the cake for Canadian readers picking up Canadian books, and one of my personal favourite perks of CanLit: it gets where I’m coming from.

CanLit Doesn’t Suck

Movie poster for Barney's Version.

Image via Online Movies Hut.

I’m really lucky somebody decided to make a film adaptation of Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler. Otherwise I might never have gotten around to cracking the cover of my husband’s copy, and I’d never have known what I know now.

Mordecai Richler is wonderful.

I’m about two-thirds of the way through Barney’s Version and I’m having a blast. It’s funny. The characters are vivid and believable. The wit is perceptive. That wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Somewhere in my past, I learned to expect CanLit – that’s Canadian Literature – to be pretentious and self-important and not much fun. And that’s a tragedy of missed reading opportunities.

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