Australian involvement in World War I has in recent years attained a high profile in books, film and television. The trend has been to demythologise the legends of heroism and courage associated with war, and the theme often adopted is the rapid and brutal transformation from naivety to understanding of how baseless the myth was. Although this might be considered well covered ground, Geoff Page in his first novel, Benton’s Conviction, has returned to the war setting. However, because he concentrates on an aspect which hitherto has not been fully explored, and sustains the work with deft prose, Page has succeeded in producing a novel of originality and consistent interest.
The eponymous protagonist of Benton’s Conviction is vicar of Geradgery, a New England country town whose few hundred inhabitants are mostly cockies and shopowners. It is 1916; the Gallipoli campaign is over, the AIF is plunged into fresh disasters in France, and Prime Minister Billy Hughes is trying to introduce conscription. The sons of Geradgery are fighting and losing their lives in the war, yet the townspeople willingly follow the official line and are in support of the war. David Benton, at some point before the opening of the novel, has preached against the war, but is promptly discouraged by his bishop from doing so again. God too, we learn, supports the fight against the Boche.