Salonika Burning | Gail Jones #AWWfiction

By midnight all was blaze and disintegration. A group of soldiers standing on the hill watched with indecent pleasure. The wind locals called the Vardaris blasted from the north, puffed minarets into candles and monuments to blocks of gold. A whoosh of flame – shaped paisley in its exotic unfurling – caused some spontaneously, shamelessly, to exclaim and clap.

I read Salonika Burning during AusReading Month but due to overscheduling and the hectic seasonal free-for-all that December becomes, I’m only just getting to my review now.

The good point being that I’ve had plenty of time to mull of the story and consider Jones’ intentions and motivations. The bad point is that I’m still not really sure what they were. Salonika Burning was one of those books that I thoroughly enjoyed being in at the time, but now have little recall of a fortnight later.

I was fascinated by the four ‘real’ characters that populated this behind-the-lines wartime story – Stella Miles Franklin, Olive King, and British painters Grace Pailthorpe and Stanley Spencer – so much so, that I compiled mini-bio’s of them below to help me sort out what was real and what was not as I was reading the book.

Certainly Stella’s mother did not die when she was a child as fictionalised by Jones. And I’m still puzzled as to why she chose to change this fact so dramatically. It allowed a feverish Stella something to hallucinate over and added to her sense of being alone in the world, but this could have been achieved well enough with the real story of her mother being angered at her portrayal of the family in My Brilliant Career (1901).

I do enjoy fictionalised biographies, or fictions based on fact, but one of their flaws can be when I, as the reader, gets too caught up in trying to work out what is real or not, or being struck by a glaring point of difference and not understanding why.

I’m not really sure what the purpose was for basing this particular story around real people.

Perhaps Jones wanted to bring home that the effects of the war were very real, that they impacted on the lives of real people, not only at the time, but for the rest of their lives in one way or another. War is not just a story that happened long ago, somewhere else, to other people. And war not only effected those who were fighting. Towns were burnt and bombed, civilians were injured and made homeless and behind-the-scenes, medical staff and other personal took care of the wounded and sick and displaced. Being on the sidelines of a war had an impact too.

All four of our real characters went on to enjoy varying degrees of success in their lives and careers after the war, however except for Stella, I had not heard of them before. Maybe that is what Jones was wanting to do? To bring to light four individuals that are not as well-known as they should be?

Perhaps the coincidence of these four people, all at the beginning of their more ‘famous’ post-war lives, being in the same place at the same time piqued her writerly imagination? Maybe it was some of their shared qualities that attracted Jones? Their outsider status, their creativity, their outspoken views on feminism and politics, or their propensity for malarial attacks?

Certainly the psychological aspects of war were at the centre of Jones’ story.

Doctors, nurses and orderlies had signs and symptoms of PTSD, not just the wounded soldiers. They are told to forget what they see. They are told not to talk about it. So they work out their own ways of dealing with the horror (Olive recites a German grammar to calm her mind, Stanley takes care of the mules and plans future paintings).

She’d been told they would blur, all the dying men. But what was striking was how specific the memories were, how much her mind retained of individual gestures, or words, or the splinters of another life showing in the flesh of a new wound.

Stanley’s character is the only one given to future foreshadowing (is that a thing?) After the burning of Salonika, Stanley experiences ‘arty imaginings‘ that turn into paintings after the war.

The human body seen from above…four mule travoys….the stretchers fanning symetrical before the doorway, the mules foreshortened but humbly leading….mule travoys, moving towards light and healing: htese compelled him to make sense.

Images: Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916 (1919) and The Last Supper (1920)

And after bathing and carefully cleaning his own feet, Stanley thinks,

He would like to paint Christ and his disciples, featuring their feet. Twenty-six feet would be at the very centre of the painting.

Grace is given some opportunities to ponder the psychological costs of war, which also foreshadows her post-war interests and research.

Salonika Burning begins with a human drama and tragedy on a broad and fiery scale. The book finishes in an equally dramatic and shocking way, but on a far more personal, intimate level, that brings home how overzealous patriotism and fear can dehumanise individuals.

Full of impressionistic images, the story moves between characters and scenes, revealing the horrors of war as well as the mundane, everyday interactions that filled in the time between the waiting for the next action to happen. In an interview with Caroline Baum in 2019, Jones talks about her fascination with time and how it can crumple and fold in the face of art and beauty. I wonder if with Salonika Burning she was exploring how time crumples and folds also in the face of war and horror.

I do enjoy Jones’ poetic, eloquent writing, and will always read her latest book, but The Death of Noah Glass is still my favourite. Various images and feelings have stayed with me all this time. Perhaps with more time, images from Salonika Burning will also prove longlasting?


Salonika is now called Thessaloniki. It is the second largest city in Greece.

On the 18 August 1917, due to a spark from a kitchen fire and strong winds, two-thirds of the city was destroyed over a 32 hour period. 70 000 people were made homeless. The city was not reconstructed until after the war, when a French architect was appointed to redesign the city along more European lines.

Stella Maria Sarah Miles Franklin

  • 14 October 1879 – 19 September 1954
  • She was the eldest child of Australian-born parents, John Maurice Franklin and Susannah Margaret Eleanor Franklin, née Lampe.
  • Her family were part of the squattocracy, although unsuccessful farming eventually led them to give it all up and move to Sydney in diminished circumstances.
  • My Brilliant Career published in 1901
  • In 1906, Franklin went to the US, arriving in the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake.
  • She eventually moved to Chicago to do secretarial work for the National Women’s Trade Union League.
  • Bouts of ill health caused her to spend time in a sanatorium in 1912.
  • Travelled to England in 1915 and worked as a cook.
  • March 1917 she volunteered for war work with the Ostrovo Unit of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals during the Serbian campaigns of 1917–18
  • After the war, back in London, worked for the National Housing and Town Planning Association as secretary.
  • Her father died in 1931.
  • She returned to Australia in 1932.
  • Her mother died in 1938.

Sergeant Olive May Kelso King

  • Born in Sydney 30 June 1885
  • Attended SCEGGS and Kambala Girls School.
  • In 1910, with three male companions, she climbed Mount Popocatepetl in Mexico.
  • When war broke out, Olive went to Belgium with her own ambulance. 
  • In 1915 she was sent with her ambulance called “Ella the elephant” to France as part of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service.
  • After six months the hospital was established near the Greek border.
  • In 1916 Olive joined the Serbian Army as a driver attached to the medical headquarters at Salonika.
  • On the day of the fire she transported people and records to safety.
  • Later, supported by funds raised by her father in Sydney, she established a string of canteens to help displaced Serbian families and soldiers. The last of these closed in 1920. 
  • Due to her father’s failing health, King returned to Sydney in 1920.
  • After the war, back in Australia, Olive put her energy into the Girl Guides Association, becoming State Secretary and later assistant State Commissioner (1932–42).
  • During the Second World War she worked at De Havilland Aircraft factory as a quality examiner.
  • King moved to Melbourne in 1956 and died there 1 November 1958.

Grace Pailthorpe

  • 29 July 1883 – 19 July 1971
  • Born into a strict Plymouth Brethren family.
  • She was the only daughter with nine brothers.
  • She was a surgeon & psychology researcher.
  • After the war she became a surrealist painter.
  • In 1915 worked as a surgeon at the Hôpital Temporaire d’Arc-en-Barrois in the Haute Marne district of France before transferring to the Scottish Women’s Hospital in Salonika in 1916.
  • After WWI, she worked for four years as a district medical officer at Youanmi in Western Australia between 1918 and 1922.
  • Married Reuben Mednikoff. Together they researched the psychology of art.
Vuelo De Medianoche (Midnight Flight) | Grace Pailthorpe (1936)

Sir Stanley Spencer

  • 30 June 1891 – 14 December 1959
  • In 1915 Spencer volunteered to serve with the Royal Army Medical Corps, RAMC working as an orderly at the Beaufort War Hospital, Bristol.
  • May 1916 he was sent to Macedonia with the 68th Field Ambulance unit.
  • In 1917 he volunteered to be transferred to an infantry unit – the 7th Battalion, Berkshire Regiment – on the Salonika/Macedonia Front.
  • Spencer returned to England at the end of 1918 after being invalided out of the army due to recurring bouts of malaria.

Favourite Quote:

…her worry about a world in which a whole city might crumble or burn. In such a world a woman alone had no guarantee of safety; no one knew her or saw her individual importance.

  • Shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2023
Title: Salonika Burning
Author: Gail Jones
ISBN: 9781922458834
Imprint: Text Publishing
Published: 1 November 2022
Format: Hardback
Pages: 256
Dates Read: 21 November 2022 - 30 November 2022
This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our first storytellers.

11 thoughts on “Salonika Burning | Gail Jones #AWWfiction

  1. I thought that Jones was primarily subverting the prevailing Anzac narrative, which is nearly always about the male perspective and a ‘masculine’ male perspective at that. Perhaps using real people as characters (albeit fictionalised) is a way to reinforce that, yes, there were real people who were like the ones portrayed in the novel i.e. females trying to break into a male profession on journalism (MF), female professionals, (the doctor) females with initiative (the ambulance driver) and sensitive men who did not benefit from the prevailing mateship?
    (That’s the question I’d ask Jones if I were chairing the panel at a lit festival!)


    1. That’s a good point Lisa.
      I didn’t think about the ANZAC narrative in this context for some reason. It’s an arena of war I knew virtually nothing about, and not one I associate with Australian troops, although of course, if the Brits were there, we were too.
      Like Grace, I was more focussed on the psychological effects of war and the impact that trauma has on the body (I’m also reading The Body Keeps the Score atm, so trauma is front of mind).


  2. The only reason – IMO – for writing a fiction about real people is for there to be a story in the gaps between the fictional life and the real one (I guess there is a second reason – to imagine someone’s life when the facts aren’t known). Miles was sorry she embarrassed her parents, but she certainly didn’t wish her mother dead. Though in a letter in 1915, she was angry enough to write, “I had never met one single human being not excepting my mother who would not exploit me to the last inch for what usefulness and entertainment was in me and then throw me on the scrap heap without qualm.”

    Interesting to read the other bios you researched. Miles was at Ostrevo, where the hospital was run at different times by two Australian women doctors. I didn’t know there was a hospital at Salonika and would like to read more about it.


  3. I’ve been enjoying myself, following the references to Salonika in the Index in Roe. The SWH hospital there was attached to the French. Miles landed in Salonika and spent a while walking round but was picked up the same day – 15 Jul 1917 – and taken to Ostrovo. Salonika’s Great Fire, which destroyed the medieval Turkish/Jewish city was just over a month later.


    1. I must confess that I had assumed that the hospital in the book, Ostrevo was on the outskirts of Salonika, so you got me duck, duck, going.
      Turns out Lake Ostrevo was 85 miles away! I didn’t get that sense of distance from the book. It seemed like a relatively easy thing for them to get in & out of Salonika by truck.

      “The American Unit (so-called as funded by American donors) set sail for Salonika in August 1916, initially joining the Newnham & Girton Unit. The original intention was to establish a base hospital in Salonika, however, with heavy fighting in Macedonia during the summer of 1916, it was decided the Unit would be located closer to the action. In September the Unit was consequently moved to the hills near Lake Ostrovo, 85 miles from Salonika, in order to support the Serbian Army. Unlike the Newnham & Girton Unit, this was a well-equipped unit that arrived with a transport column.“

      And yes, the characters did mention the Australian matron running the hospital. Jones also talked about Stella seeing the destruction in San Fran after the earthquake when she first arrived in the US. My quote references her feelings about seeing two cities destroyed.

      Quote source:


      1. Just one point. The Australian women in charge of Ostrovo – which by the time MF got there was well behind the lines – were doctors. Dr Agnes Bennett who picked MF up from the Salonika, and Dr de Garis (whom we obliquely ran into in a WG post earlier in the year). I imagine they were trained in Edinburgh. SWH was entirely run by women doctors.


      1. Hmmm … I’m not always particular but I do like to feel I know enough to understand the references. I might put this on my reading group list because it encompasses so much that interests us – history, literature, art.


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