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Ghost Town by Jeff Young review – a book of beauty and longing

The lecturer and playwright revisits the Liverpool streets of his youth in this Costa prize-shortlisted meditation on loss

Retracing his past through the labyrinth of old Liverpool, Jeff Young has conjured a book of plangent beauty and longing. Ghost Town is in essence a memoir, but within its short span it contains multitudes: a meditation on loss, a family album, an ode to the power of reading, a loving memorial to a city, and a long goodbye. Young is a playwright-essayist-lecturer of local renown whose work deserves national recognition and may get it: the book was recently shortlisted for the Costa biography award.

Born in the late 1950s, the author is just old enough to remember the terraced streets of his Everton neighbourhood before it was razed to the ground. He can still sense the ghosts – of his blind grandfather, of his parents, of his sister Val – as he takes long, obsessive walks around a city that has been disappearing all his life. It’s partly the Liverpool of Terence Davies’s cine-memoir Distant Voices, Still Lives, a place of tenderness and togetherness but also of violence and trauma: a stay in a grim fever hospital as an eight-year-old comes back to trouble him. An “invisible boy” who hated school, Young found a refuge, a whole world, in books, none more formative than A Kestrel for a Knave. Inspired by Billy Casper with his hawk, he discovers through reading a spirit of creativity that is close to love. Unlike Billy, he will transcend his “scrapheap education” and thrive.

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