“The cold that settled in the hollow of the small deserted town was freezing. He spread out his frosty sleeping bag and tucked everyone in for a chilly night. The main street that ran through the center of town had miles and miles of freeway behind it, like a snake, weaving its way through a strange wasteland.
“It was not a desert of rolling dunes and date-filled oases, nor a desert of cacti and canyons. They were badlands, carpeted in dirt and lined with brush…
“The city huddled under the watchful eye of a towering church that stopped the freeway in its tracks and cut it in two. Whether you turn left or right, you could not pass without a spiritual thought.
So begins Melissa Volker’s novel, A fractured land, a love story set in Graaff-Reinet in the Eastern Cape.
Lexi Taylor’s husband pulled off a quick hit by taking their money and disappearing into the ether. Broken and trying to put the pieces back together, Lexi returns to her mother’s house in Graaff-Reinet and finds a job as a singer in a local hotel bar. There, she meets an exhausted Carter O’Brien, who arrives at the hotel one evening looking “like having walked from the United States to Graaff-Reinet”. Carter is a geologist from Texas and is in South Africa exploring the possibility of fracking for shale gas in the southwest Karoo Basin.
Volker’s tales are carefully woven, a leno weave of the finest ilk. Her books take time to write and she has an amazing ability to transport the reader through time and space.
In A fractured land, we can visualize the barren landscape, the sweat of hot nights is tangible, and we can smell the lingering scent of wisteria on dry, mild days. Volker is adept at breathing life into the South African landscape, leaping it off the page to embed itself in the reader’s mind.
“There’s a lot of work in my books,” Volker says. “I have been working on my current novel for about three years. I’m pretty picky. I try to layer the characters, to make the dialogue work. I feel like each novel takes longer – maybe I’ve become a harsher critic of my own work, or maybe I’m learning more about writing.
The time Volker invests in his writing is evident in his other books, shadow twinkle (released in 2019) and The pool guy, a short story published in 2021. The attention to detail distinguishes his work from other books in the genre, where some writers have managed to release many books in a short time.
Volker’s writing stands out for its meticulous effort to cobble together an intricate, exquisitely told, high-caliber love story.
What also sets Volker apart is that the two A fractured land and shadow twinkle skillfully incorporate an attempt to pluck the strings of environmental consciousness.
“I write about the environment because it’s an issue that concerns me. While writing the books, I thought about some of the social circles I find myself in where these issues don’t even touch the ground. I realized that one of the ways to get people thinking about it is through fiction.
“Sometimes people get so tired of bad news and watch it on TV. So I wanted to package it in a way that was palatable…in a way that raised awareness.
In A fractured land, Volker delves into the muddy waters of hydraulic fracturing and its associated environmental challenges, but also the debate that accompanies its potential to create economic opportunity. It is this lens, in which issues are layered and complex, that stands out in Volker’s work.
She manages, through storytelling, to consider both the potential positive and negative repercussions of hydraulic fracturing. “Above all, I don’t try to solve complex social problems, because life isn’t like that. I don’t necessarily tie them with a bow – I just leave them there, resting and unresolved.
Volker has an affinity for Graaff-Reinet, the setting of A fractured land. She fell in love with the small town as a teenager when she took a bus to stay with a friend for a week.
“It really touched me. It was winter and you could feel the cold in the air. The environment stayed with me and I wanted to write about it. I am also very attached to fracking, because we live in a country where we have water problems. We don’t have the resources to use water for fracking. There has to be a better way – why not solar?
“But I also understand the Karoo, the socio-economic issues – if anything can create employment, then there are two sides to the story.”
Volker has researched some of the community meetings when fracking was being considered in Graaff-Reinet and looked at, for example, consultations with local Khoisan leaders. Some of the substance of these meetings – weighing the harmful effects of fracking with that of the benefits to the community – is drawn from the book.
In shadow twinkle, Kate Peterson suffers from an anxiety disorder caused by a personal tragedy. His boss unwittingly sends him on a renewable energy mission to the site of his trauma, St Francis Bay in the Eastern Cape. Kate is sent to handle environmental opposition to a wind farm project. One day on the beach, she meets local vet Matthew Sykes, who is mourning the death of his wife. The chemistry between them is palpable, but the relationship is not without complications.
The book, as is the case for A fractured land, also has elements of a psychological thriller, with clever twists woven into the story. shadow twinkle highlights how tension in communities can skyrocket when there are different and contested interests.
Violence erupts as the local community grows increasingly hostile to the idea of a wind farm, and things heat up when Kate begins receiving threats. The toll on Kate’s mental health is enormous and it becomes difficult to hide it from others.
Like with A fractured land, environmental issues are an important part of the story. shadow twinkle was inspired by Volker’s experience and affinity for St Francis Bay.
“My family had a small cabin on the Krom River, in a nature reserve. The community there is very concerned about the environment. There are plants that you cannot remove while building. You can’t drive on certain parts of the estuary to get your boat in the water – they’re very strict about that sort of thing.
“But then there was a proposal from a wind farm developer to build a wind farm with a view to the nature reserve. The community went crazy. I really couldn’t understand it – how people who care about the environment might they not want to support the development of a wind farm Because they opposed it, it was not built I thought, there is a story here because it does not doesn’t make sense – that people are aware of the environment until it affects them.
“They call them nimbys (Not in my garden) – basically you can build a wind farm, but not where I’ve invested in my holiday home, because I don’t want to see it. This is what excites me and I had to write about it.
shadow twinkle won the Strelitzia Award in 2017, an award that recognizes his talent, from the Romance Writers Organization of South Africa (ROSA).
Volker’s latest book, The pool guy, is a short and pointed story.
Lauren Jones is the demanding manager of a spa at a hotel on the mountain overlooking the sea. She takes pride in running a first-class establishment. Things start to go downhill when a new pool guy, Wyatt, shows up shirtless, strutting around while he cleans the pool.
Lauren is determined to run an “establishment of honor and dignity” and in her mind, the pool guy doesn’t fit the picture. She tries to take it in hand, but he’s languorous and laissez-faire and doesn’t seem at all concerned with Lauren’s attempt to improve his “sophistication”.
The book is not long; it’s a piece of a thing that keeps you on your toes. It all started with an initiative by ROSA, who wanted to create an anthology of love stories. Volker wrote the book during lockdown. Her work as a beautician slowed down, which allowed her to have more time to write, to escape into Lauren and Wyatt’s story. The idea for the book came about as she watched her husband rake leaves and make work calls at the same time.
“My husband was raking the leaves during confinement. I had never seen him work in the garden before. As he raked, he talked on the phone about major construction projects. I looked at this and thought, here’s an idea.
“I also wanted to write about a beautician because that’s what I do. Some people think it’s a glamorous job. But, actually, the beautician works hard and she sweats…she has to keep clean, pull her hair back and keep her nails short, keep her cool.
Lauren Jones is one of Volker’s most drawn characters. Her portrait, her motivations, her complexity make it hard to believe that in fact she does not exist. “I go on an emotional journey with my characters – sometimes they make me laugh. Sometimes I feel sad for them. They become real and they are deeply cathartic,” she explains.
Romance stories have sometimes gotten a bad press because of the negative stigma associated with them. Yet, like the Netflix series, Bridgerton, showed us, these are the stories that many women want to read. “I think there’s an element of misogyny in there,” Volker says.
“The big question to think about is: Does misogyny play a role in the value we attach to books? Does it play a role in deciding whether a book is subservient or not? women enjoy romance, why is it stigmatized?”
ROSA shares the same view – that it’s internalized misogyny that drives people to denigrate the things women love. The organization claims in its December 2021 newsletter that we have been conditioned to think that content generated by and for women lacks merit – that centering women’s pleasure is “trash” or lacks merit.
We shouldn’t judge books by the genre they’re in. Instead, we should focus on the merits of the book – its plot, its characters, and the technical and creative ability of the author.
If you want to read smart, carefully crafted love stories with an environmental twist and agenda, Volker certainly has you covered. DM/ML