THE LAZARUS CHILD by Robert Mawson, Bantam Press, $195 WHAT on earth makes a book worth GBP2.5 million (about HK$31 million)? That was what publishers decided The Lazarus Child was worth after furious bidding at the world's biggest book fair in Frankfurt, Germany, last October, just two weeks after unknown author Robert Mawson handed in the manuscript. It is a question that bugs you through every one of the 346 pages of the tale of estranged English couple Alison and Jack Heywood's battle to cope when their two children are involved in a road accident. Hardly the jolliest of subjects, so maybe the publishers deemed it worthy and deep. But it is far too simplistic for that. Yes, there are Themes Of Our Time here: whose responsibility is it to manage the ethics of the latest breakthrough in medical technology? Mawson tosses in every possible permutation. Even the defence department makes a shadowy entrance. And The Lazarus Child is certainly, as Mawson modestly hoped, a page turner. It should be: he is pretty shameless about pulling heartstrings. By chapter four, two children are dead and another two are hanging on by a thread. Maybe you have to be a parent - a pathetic wreck when a Little One is in danger - to really empathise, but it is a riveting read to the end. The author has created - a word used advisedly, for there is much in this book that smacks not just of an early novel but of writing by numbers, of film offers and Dustin Hoffman in the lead role - a strong tale of hope as well as despair. But what probably earned Mawson - 41 and a welfare recipient until the week before the fair - that wad of cash, is what lends a sometimes ponderous book its life. For a novel centred around family, love, marriage and children, it is not really surprising to learn Mawson is 'reluctantly' divorced. His strong feelings about marital strife and family (as opposed to marriage) break-up are painfully clear. They make Jack, a commercial pilot as was Mawson, the accidentally dominant character. They make Mawson an honest, powerful writer. At one stage, Jack returns to the home from which his wife has thrown him out, to bring his son, Ben, a bag full of small presents. 'He began emptying the bag on to the table. It was strange: he felt perhaps he should ask permission first. No, not strange. Stupid, humiliating. To ask if he could sit at his table. In his kitchen. With his son.' This is surely a reflection of Mawson's own heartache, his own frustrations at being a part-time father. The Lazarus Child is as much a tale of a man suffering as it is of seven-year-old Frankie, left in a coma, and her elder brother Ben, severely traumatised. After three hopeless months, Frankie becomes simply the coma case in room four, fifth floor. Worse still, her parents realise that prolonging her existence may be damaging Ben, who is withdrawing further and further via a series of superb dream sequences. But then the Heywoods hear of an experimental clinic in America run by the brilliant neurologist Elizabeth Chase. Chase's younger brother died in front of her years before and it is this that fuels her work 'on the frontiers between unconscious existence and oblivion'. Her work pushes the limits of accepted medical practice. As the Heywoods arrive in America, they find Chase and her clinic besieged by the law, the media, human rights activists and the medical establishment. Throughout the novel, Mawson chews away at the question of what you do in such a no-win situation. It powers his book and supplies a gripping finale. As a writer who has spent many years in the wilderness, a man who should know all about redemption, his answer seems to be: never give up.