Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley
I have been listening to this on audiobook over the weekend while knitting and thinking that it is one of the pleasures of book blog browsing to occasionally come across such a gem. I don't recall where it was, but thank you so much to whoever reviewed this.

Ptolemy is an old man, living out his years replaying some memories and avoiding others, housebound, not by incapacity but by a creeping dementia that means he does not know where to go or how to get back if he ever got there. He relies on his grandnephew, who's failure to appear one day leads him into new contact with his large extended family and with the wider world. A young girl called Robyn becomes his caretaker and instead of just walking him to the store and back she takes his life in hand and shakes it up in ways he could not have anticipated.

What is so wonderful about the book is the portrait of Ptolemy, so vivid are the descriptions of his thoughts that you feel like you understand the debilitating nature of old age decline. He goes to say things and then forgets, he knows that he does not know, that he has forgotten, but is haunted by memories that he cannot escape. He has this sense that there are important things he needs to do before he dies but he is crippled by his own weaknesses and failings. You get a real sense of his intense vulnerability, how he knows he cannot protect himself, how reliant he is on others, but there are still flashes of a more shrewd person, a proud one, one who is trying so determinedly not to give in to it all.

I really liked too the relationship between Ptolemy and Robyn, a loving and genuinely affectionate one but also a slightly ambiguous one, since he is too aged to feel real desire but still has the ability to admire her as a beautiful woman. Also his friendship with a old lady called Mrs Wring, who he encounters on a trip to the bank when she asks him to loan her some money and offers a precious ring as security. It is this event that sparks for him the memory of the treasure and how he should make amends for past wrongs.

As a young boy Ptolemy lost his best friend in a house fire and then witnessed the lynching of his beloved great uncle, events which marked him and which now have come to dominate his thinking, his need to make amends and to provide protection for his family for the future. The lasting image of his long dead wife is his other ghost, one which he has avoided by closing up their bedroom and sleeping amongst the junk on a mattress under the table. When it emerges that his grandnephew has been killed in a drive-by shooting Ptolemy determines to provide for his wife and two children using a 'treasure' stolen by his great uncle. In a scene that reminded me of the film 'Awakenings' he chooses to take some experimental medicine to restore his brain function. Although still relying on Robyn to care for him he takes steps to secure the treasure and make a will, and then in a very powerful scene confronts the person he knows is responsible for his grandnephew's death.

This book made me think of 'Small Island' by Andrea Levy that I read some years ago, a novel about the life of immigrants into the UK from the Caribbean during the 1950's. It is difficult to write about books that tell about black people's experience and not feel like you are coming across as patronising, but both this and Small Island I felt gave me some small insight into a life experience that is so foreign to my own. For Ptolemy the world is not to be trusted, and no just because he is loosing his marbles, but because he is black. He does not expect the world to work in his favour, he expects to have to fight for things. The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey was poignant and heartbreaking and yet never sentimental, and from a writer who's output seems to be mostly detective mysteries it was most unexpected.

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