Book Review: Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler

Vintage Canada. Purchased at Chapters Indigo

Barney sits down to write his memoirs when, in an autobiography, a fellow Montrealer who is now a famous writer accuses him of being an abusive husband, a drunk and maybe a murderer. His story moves back and forth between the past and present. You realize from the beginning that Barney with his faltering memory is not the most reliable of story-tellers especially since his memoirs include footnotes by his eldest son who corrects or clarifies some of his writing. Barney is not a likeable fellow but deep down he’s not a bad guy and in spite of the sarcasm, humour, and the pranks he describes you feel his regret and remorse. Despite the increasingly frequent memory lapses and the constant digressions, Barney’s life story spills out. He finally tells his version of the disappearance of his friend Boogie that led to him being charged with murder.

As a backdrop to the story, Barney is writing his memoirs in a divided city struggling to find its identity. As a new Montreal resident, I loved the author’s descriptions of the climate of the city during the period of time leading up to the 1995 Referendum in Quebec.

Towards the end the story, Barney is mixing up events, getting confused often and you begin to suspect the reason. Barney’s story ends abruptly and is followed by an afterword by his son Michael that finally answers the question of his Dad’s innocence (which you find yourself doubting while reading his story). The saying says that hindsight is 20-20 but I’m not sure that’s correct in this case as Barney struggles to come to terms with the different events in his life. As for Mr. Richler’s writing, it was phenomenal. This story is witty, snarky, funny but poignant. I found myself rooting for Barney but also pitying him at times. If there is a lesson to be learned from this story it should be that we shouldn’t judge others and we shouldn’t spend so much time worrying about fitting in or achieving the correct status is society.

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