Ptolemy Grey is a true character. He’s ninety-one years old and lives alone in his cluttered apartment in Los Angeles. He’s done an enormous amount of living in his ninety one years. He’s witnessed incredibly violent acts of racism. He’s married twice and lost both his wives though his extended family is so large it’s hard to keep track of who everyone is. He’s accumulated a small fortune in gold coins and cash savings which he keeps hidden in his apartment because Ptolemy Grey does not trust banks. He’s repeatedly threatened by the female drug addict who lives across the parking lot. His grand-nephew Reggie’s just been killed in a drive by shooting. AND he has dementia. There’s so much going in Ptolemy Grey’s life, the dementia is almost an afterthought. Though it’s made his life increasingly difficult. With Reggie dead, he’s not sure who is going to look after him. He can’t remember who to trust. He’s holed up in his tiny apartment where the bathroom no longer works and there’s so much rubbish piled everywhere, he can’t even get to his bed to sleep.
Seventeen year old Robyn meets Ptolemy at Reggie’s funeral. She becomes a kind of surrogate daughter/granddaughter/niece to the old man. She moves into his apartment and very soon has both Ptolemy’s living situation and his life licked into shape. Robyn finds a doctor who’s willing to include Ptolemy in a fictional drug trial. A course of experimental injections takes away his dementia so he’s suddenly able to remember his past and present with vivid clarity. The doctor’s warned him that this recovery is temporary. It will ultimately hasten his death but Ptolemy’s willing to take these odds so he has enough time to settle his affairs and ensure Robyn will be looked after when he dies.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. After so many middleclass, white narratives, it was refreshing to read a dementia novel set within a working class, African American community. It offered me a welcome insight into how dementia and ageing is viewed within this community. The extended family is expected to take responsibility for Ptolemy. It’s striking that this is perhaps the first dementia narrative where residential or external care isn’t mentioned at all. The narrative strand involving the complete return of Ptolemy’s memory is completely unbelievable, (I don’t necessarily mean this as a critique). It’s a plot device which Mosley uses in order to allow Ptolemy a chance to bring some level of catharsis to his family and the people he cares about. It works and reads as credible. As do the more realist descriptions of Ptolemy’s life before he encounters the wonder drugs. I was struck by the early descriptions of the squalor and isolation Ptolemy is living in. It resonated with several of my own experiences of older people living alone beyond the point where they’re fit to look after themselves.
This is both a great read and a captivating portrayal of the dementia experience. I fell in love with the character of Ptolemy Grey. I could easily have read another two hundred pages or more.
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey was published by Riverhead Books in 2010