Salonika Burning by Gail Jones

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Reading this book made me feel as though I were experiencing the fog of war, or perhaps the fog of an aging brain. That was especially the case when the focus was on the character who barely survived malaria, so I like to think that feeling was the result of skillful writing. This is my fifth Gail Jones book.

Though the setting of the book was Salonika (now Thessaloniki) during World War I in a hospital at the battle front, the war was not the focus. The Eastern Front was experiencing a period of calm. The devastating fire that destroyed Salonika was not caused by the war.

The narrative describes fictional activities of four historical figures: ┬áthe Australian writer Miles Franklin, Olive King, a wealthy woman who used her money to equip an ambulance she drove, and two British artists, Grace Pailthorpe, and Stanley Spencer. In her Author’s Note, Jones tells us that the four did serve in the area of Salonika, but there’s no indication they met.

Stella (Miles Franklin) had traveled for ten years after she left Australia, working as a journalist and writer. While in London, she signed a six-month contract with the Scottish Women’s Hospital as an assistant cook and orderly. She was assigned to the Eastern Front and found herself working in a kitchen, peeling potatoes until she contracted malaria. When she heard of the fire, she looked forward to visiting the city again. Remembering Olive’s use of the word “catastrophic,” she thought that would be something to write home about.

Stanley Spencer had volunteered as an orderly though in this book his work was with mules. Just as Stella was eager to see Salonika so she could write about it, Stanley wished to paint the razed city and the human drama. “He would paint the couple on the bed, made tired and saggy by their lovemaking, sprawled together in naked ungainly relaxation; beyond them the orange window before they both saw and knew.”

Olive found herself suddenly weary of her pampered life in Sydney and left for London in 1913. When war broke out, her father sent her money to outfit an ambulance. After a year of driving in France, she had become strong and able to work hard and now was in Macedonia. During the Great Fire she rescued countless people and drove until her fingers were so stiff she could hardly move them.

Grace had nine brothers, one of whom she had a close connection to. The family were Plymouth Brethren, a “low church” group, and her parents were “strictly unloving and cruelly pious.” She was precocious enough to make her way to medical school and disciplined enough to see the inert cadavers without emotion. She arrived in Macedonia after two years in France as a wartime surgeon. After the war she became a psychoanalyst and later a surrealist painter. The Wikipedia story of her life reads like a novel.

The book ends in a burst of violence.

Gail Jones, Salonika Burning, Text Publishing, 2022, 256 pages (I read the kindle version). Not in the public library.

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