Book review: Salonika Burning, Gail Jones

Painfully beautiful historical fiction from the mind of a celebrated writer.

Beginning and ending with a midnight blaze, Salonika Burning is a superbly written tale about the fragility of existence and the realities of war. In a story heavy with memories and impressions, Gail Jones describes the destruction of literal and figurative worlds in heartbreaking detail, poignantly painting the various ways in which war remakes both people and places.

Unveiled in powerful prose, Olive, Grace, Stanley and Stella bear witness to the 1917 burning of a Macedonian city, in the midst of World War I. These four distinct characters are based vaguely on historical figures, including Stella Miles Franklin and Stanley Spencer, but are non-historical works of imaginative fiction. Olive the ambulance driver, Grace the surgeon, Stella the writer and Stanley the artist are tethered to one another by circumstance and the haunting long-term consequences of humans and blind imperialism.

Olive, in London when the war breaks out, watches the London bombings from up close. The favourite child of a privileged family, she wants to support the war effort, using the only relevant skills at her disposal – her ability to drive, and the funds to purchase an ambulance. She travels to Salonika where she is tortured by mosquitos and nightmares of wartime memory. Eventually, a destructive loss of purpose leads to an unshakeable sense of doom.

Grace is a surgeon, burdened by the pressure and guilt of saving (and failing to save) soldiers’ lives. A fan of Freudian dream interpretation, and prone to psychological avoidance, she is aware of her own mortality but looks with hope towards the future. Grace grew up as a misfit among her many brothers, but now writes only to her favourite brother and fellow misfit. At 34 years old, unsentimental, unreadable and ever-practical, Grace is left reeling from the shock of a telegram from Army Command, accompanied by a string of insufferable platitudes. Grace gradually loses her own humanity as the death toll rises and the images of corpses eat away at her heart.

Stella, 38, speaks in slang, and grasps at the wartime vestiges of her perceived femininity. Optimistic and imaginative with nationalistic tendencies, her self-assurance is bruised by a loss of purpose and a change in status. Inventive, curious and addicted to distraction, Stella is intent on writing the catastrophic until sickness sets in. Pain, delirium and disjointed memory prevent her from reaching her writerly goals.

Stanley has an artist’s mind and eyes, seeing the world in terms of daub, angle, refraction and perspective. A devout Methodist and devotee of religious art, he is pensive, sensitive and kind to animals. He is an outsider, along with his friend George, who wants to paint the war, and is horrified by the harm men will willingly inflict upon one another. 

The circular, impressionistic structure of this book enhances the narrative and will hook keen readers. Dead rabbits, suicide funerals and malarial tragedies are complemented by mirror motifs, hidden soldiers and lives becoming rubble. Jones unpretentiously depicts the dramatic face of war alongside drastically unglamorous elements like mud, dysentery, fevers and the dissolution of self under the weight of dreary torment. The premise of Salonika Burning may seem reminiscent of Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch, but Jones’ execution of the concept is truly unique. 

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This stunning critique on the arbitrary atrocities inherent in war will resonate most strongly with those who have witnessed needless horror and those who crave meaning in chaos.

Salonika Burning by Gail Jones
Publisher: Text Publishing
ISBN: 9781922458834
Format: Hardback
Pages: 256 pp
Publication date: 1 November 2022
RRP: $34.99

Nanci Nott is a nerdy creative with particular passions for philosophy and the arts. She has completed a BA in Philosophy, and postgraduate studies in digital and social media. Nanci is currently undertaking an MA in Creative Writing, and is working on a variety of projects ranging from novels to video games. Nanci loves reviewing books, exhibitions, and performances for ArtsHub, and is creative director at Defy Reality Entertainment.