Gail Jones is back with a ninth novel, that bears a haunting title prologuing a visceral account that connects Greece and Australia through the atrocities of war.

The book begins with a Salonika (Thessaloniki) set ablaze, and images of chaos as homes are burned to the ground producing “a villainous cracking sound … entering your bones.”

The author’s words dig deep, her intimate and direct descriptions take the reader on a journey alongside the protagonists, strong characters that she does not like to call “heroes”.

Jones’ work, which includes two short story collections, has been translated in multiple languages, has received numerous literary awards and has been shortlisted four times for the Miles Franklin, as well as for the International Dublin Literary Award and the Prix Femina Étranger. Her accolades include the Prime Minister’s Literary Award, the Age Book of the Year, the South Australian Premier’s Award, the ALS Gold Medal and the Kibble Award.

In this new novel, she brings together historical events with fiction, through captivating prose and a plot that evokes one image after the other. But how did the idea behind the title and the storyline come about?

“Salonika Burning is a novel that has many beginnings,” Gail Jones tells Neos Kosmos.

“In the first place, I was following the historical story of a Sydney woman called Olive King, a volunteer ambulance driver in World War One. She worked with the Scottish Woman’s Hospital, a group of field hospitals set up by Scottish Suffragettes and staffed entirely by women. Olive served in France, but then in Thessaloniki. I have always been fascinated by port cities that are at the crossroads of several cultures (Shanghai, London, Buenos Aires, Sydney, etc) and there’s a wonderful history by Mark Mazower called Salonica: City of Ghosts which I read while writing this book.”

Salonika was the port for the Allied Forces of the ‘Eastern Front’ and when ‘The Great Fire of Salonika’ broke out in August 1917, Olive was stationed nearby and helped the evacuation of injured refugees from the city. The fire destroyed most of the city, Jones explains.

The short novel is structured on three other main characters, also based on actual historical figures that are referred to throughout the book with their first names. It is more so read as a fictional human interest story than a historical account of war, with the connections between the characters webbed together by her, and not life itself.

“When I began Olive’s story I thought it would be interesting to see who else was in the area in 1917 and I discovered the Australian writer Miles Franklin, a British surgeon, Grace Pailthorpe, who later became a surrealist painter, and another, Stanley Spencer, also British, who also became a famous artist after the war,” Jones, tells Neos Kosmos.

The author, wanted a short and very compressed novel, focussed on the lives of these four, all enlisted in medical services, not to fight.

“I didn’t want to write about the spectacle of war or the Great Fire,” she says, “but experience on the ground, as it were, through the eyes of foreign witnesses to the local tragedy.”

For Jones, the fire itself brings the trauma of the war to a kind of crisis; two catastrophes in one place.

“I’ve always been interested in etymology and the Greek term katastrophē includes the idea of a turning point in peoples’ lives. So the word pops up in the novel to pay honour to the tradition of Greek tragedy and the link between an epic scale of events and ordinary human struggles for meaning.”

As the four characters move through chaos together, their journeys separate yet intertwined, they walk through dead bodies and the debris of a city partially destroyed, leaving thousands of people displaced.

In spite of their struggles, Olive, Stella, Grace and Stanley have hope and can still find the beauty in being alive and staying in the present moment even when everything around them collapses.

“Throughout, the image of the burning city recurs, haunting its characters with not only its destructive horror but also the way it compels them to bear witness,” she says.

As they take events into account, we get to do the same with them, Jones’ narration making it impossible to not relate.

She takes what might seem like stereotypical personalities and deconstructs them exposing their unconventional sides and patterns that in a way feel like a reiteration of every human’s struggle to find meaning in life even if we have to lose ourselves completely to figure out who we are.

“I don’t set up ‘messages’ in my novels, but trust readers to make connections,” Jones says.

“Broadly… I see this as an antiwar novel, and one which honours medicos in the context of large scale suffering.”

The tragedy set in 1917 feels a lot like 2022, with hope and the human capacity for selfless acts of love being the silver lining. Everything can be rebuilt even if it takes one broken piece at a time.