Cover of book: Salonika Burning

Gail Jones
Salonika Burning

Salonika Burning, the ninth novel from Gail Jones, is an enthralling narrative that transports readers to the battlefields of Greece in 1917. Jones, whose book The Death of Noah Glass won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction in 2019, is one of Australia’s most distinguished and highly awarded writers. This latest novel, like much of her work, brings the settings and dramas of the past into sharp and vivid focus.

Through the separate perspectives of four characters – two British, two Australian – the novel depicts the events, large and small, that unfold during and after a catastrophic fire that destroys one square kilometre of the city of Salonika, now known as Thessaloniki. Driven by high winds and lack of water, the blaze begins with an “ordinary error”, when a spark from a domestic fire ignites a bundle of straw and causes “elemental destruction”. “By midnight all was blaze and disintegration”, “a vermilion glow like a welt on the horizon”.

The novel’s structure has a delicate rhythm, as each character in turn is recurrently foregrounded. The lives, thoughts and feelings of the characters, singly and in concert, enunciate with clarity and elegance the horror endured by individuals trapped in the chaos of war, which is here backlit by the unrelated conflagration in Salonika.

The author’s note explains that, although the characters were inspired by historical figures, these richly detailed stories are largely imagined. There is evidence of extensive research: I could not resist checking on the biographies of Olive King, Miles (Stella) Franklin, Grace Pailthorpe and Stanley Spencer.

Stanley is a British artist who works as a medical orderly with the Allied forces in what was then Macedonia, and transports the wounded to hospital by mule. Grace, a surgeon at the Scottish Women’s Hospital in Macedonia, is also British and has an interest in Freud.

The Australians are Olive, an ambulance driver, and assistant cook Stella, who wants to be a writer. The grim and immediate details of conflict are vividly articulated through these four complex characters. As their memories, hopes, loves and fears colour their actions, readers are taken deep into the human understanding and experience of war.

Each character is eloquent in their own way. Stella sees “the ravage and idiocy and dreariness” of it all. Stanley sees everyone, “private and sergeant and lance corporal and lieutenant and captain” as being, like him, “barmy and afraid”. At the funeral of a young nurse who drowned herself in response to news of her husband’s death in battle, Olive considers the “foul enjoyment of destruction that made men rush over a parapet with a will to kill others, or drop explosives on civilians from a deadly sky”. Driving her ambulance with “a kind of sorrowful amazement” through ruined Salonika, Olive remembers that this was “not France, with deep trenches and hoops of barbed wire” but “unmilitary fire” that shows how nowhere is beyond tragedy.

The constant daily scramble for petrol, tea, tobacco, quinine or food stands in blunt contrast to a narrative of broken bodies, filthy water, the ever-present fear of malaria. Throughout the novel, a motif of rabbits threads elements of simple survival together with grotesque death. A cargo of knitted socks and 50,000 frozen rabbits arrives from Australia – the promise of stew and dry, warm feet – but the carcasses are starkly reminiscent of dead soldiers. “Their greyish bodies were veined with white threads of sinew, their forelegs extended in a parody of running away.” Eventually, as the rabbits thaw, they begin to turn green.

Jones deftly places World War I in a sweeping historical context. Reminders of ancient times, ancient faiths, whisper and swell across the narrative. Stanley is a fervent Christian and widely read, and his thoughts turn to the Letters of Paul, Herodotus and Greek history and myth. Grace buys a crude icon of St Demetrius, patron of Salonika, warrior and martyr. Echoes of sweetness and beauty make their way through the violence – olive groves, lavender, love, memories of home – but there is also the constant fear of receiving terrible news, or of making a fatal mistake. The writing is exquisitely balanced and tender, coloured by sadness, dread and a touch of tragic irony.

Another recurring motif in Salonika Burning is the mirror, which makes its final appearance when Stanley recalls his father’s tale of the tapetum lucidum, a reflector behind the retinas of animals such as cats, dogs and horses. Much of the exposition of these four lives during war is reflected back to the gaze of the reader.

The characters search, often in despair, for some goodness and meaning, but ultimately they simply endure, to persevere in quiet hope. As Olive ultimately realises, the burnt city of Salonika “was an omen”. It was “the sign that everything was coming apart”. 

Text Publishing, 256pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 19, 2022 as "Salonika Burning, Gail Jones".

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