Do you want to read a romantic romp set in a social housing estate? Mind Games and Ministers might be just the book to pack into your holiday luggage next time around. Not many novels set in social housing are written by people who have actually worked as housing managers. There are plenty of books that feature housing estates – I can think of Andrew O’Hagan’s Our Fathers (about Glasgow) or Anthony Cartwright’s The Afterglow (set in Dudley). But former Chris Longden writes from experience of working in social housing in the north of England and her knowledge adds lots of the detail to this funny novel. Based partly around a fictitious Manchester estate and an equally fictitious district council, its characters – the tenants and the housing managers – all ring true. There’s even a housing policy dimension to the story – everyone’s struggling with spending cuts and reduced services.
The heroine, Rachael – loosely modelled on the author, I suspect – is a blonde, thirty-something mother of two who’s lost her husband in a tragic and stupid accident. Her career is in housing, but the latest stage of it, as manager of a women’s refuge called Sisters’ Space, is rewarding only in the non-material sense. At work she deals with family emergencies, offering counselling, trying to empower her clients and pleading for help from other agencies. At home she struggles with unpaid bills and final notices, combining full-time work with managing her life with two small kids.
Then into this mundane existence drops Michael, who’s not only the local MP but Minister for Communities and therefore the man responsible for the spending cuts. He gets mixed up in an incident where a woman gets beaten up by her husband and needs instant rehousing, is bowled over by Rachael’s competence at handling the woman, the enraged husband, the police and everyone else, and they end up having a fling that might, just might, lead to something more.
But lurking in the background is Shaun, the tall, madly handsome Director of Just About Everything at Medlock Council. It turns out that Rachael has had a fling with him too, not long after her husband’s death. She’s still mad about him, the only problem being that he’s got an attractive wife whose photo proudly sits on his expensive office desk.
Who does she end up with? You’ll have to read the book to find out. But the story is left sufficiently open that there’s promise of more to come in later books. So where did it all come from? Well I recognised the references to coffee-making, as Chris has not long opened the Dark Woods Coffee Roastery in Marsden, near Huddersfield, where she produces organic, fairtrade coffee. Intriguingly, she opened it in the company of Colne Valley’s Tory MP Jason McCartney, leading to speculation that he might be the inspiration for the book’s amorous Minister for Communities. If he is, he should be flattered, but will he be strong enough competition for Shaun the housing director? Or even for Martyn the head of New Banks Housing Association, who seems ready to come to the rescue of the financially-challenged women’s refuge just as the novel comes to a close? There’s plenty of intrigue left in Medlock yet.