Jim Crace's eighth novel is a study of sex, and hence requires from its author a great willingness to generalise. "Her perfect body was a disincentive: that's something few women ever understand. It was not eloquent, not in itself, not even in the prospect of its nakedness. The body tells you nothing. It's not the body but a woman's ever undressed face that most men find exciting, the undefended and arousing glance that betrays exactly what the glancer sees in you, exactly what she's found."
Felix Dern, the novel's protagonist, seems more or less to concur with this theory. He is a textbook example of that invention of the late 1980s or thereabouts: the serial monogamist. The title indicates the number of women he has slept with in his life. (Almost, anyway - in a nod to convention, one of them, his first wife, counts as two.) The conundrum - conundrums appear to be close to the heart of Jim Crace's project as a fiction writer - is that each of these women has got pregnant by Felix Dern and borne his child.
Felix, or "Lix", as he is mostly referred to, is an emblem of potency and rarefied selfhood - a famous person. He is an actor whose celebrity exists even in the very substance of his flesh, in the form of the well-known birthmark on his face. He and his quintet of biological associates live in a city of vaguely South American atmosphere, variously known as the City of Balconies and the City of Kisses - a place scarred by past ideological brutalities and by the workings of a police state, which offers to its bourgeoisie possibilities of both courage and conformity. After a brief student flirtation with the former, Felix plumps firmly for an easy and unobtrusive political life. He follows the promptings of his vanity, as people do, and experiences himself largely through relationships with women and later through professional success.
The novel concerns itself with the relationships, though it is not immediately clear why. Felix's first sexual experience, as a student, is with a young woman whose name he forgets to ask and of whose subsequent pregnancy he never learns. For her, the experience is humiliating: an attempt to forget for a moment the doomed affair she's having with a married man. Felix himself has cause, soon after, to forget this sordid brief encounter, when he falls in love for the first time. Freda - beautiful, angry, impossible - makes and breaks the mould of Felix's emotional being. Their affair lasts less than a month, but he spends the rest of his life both pursuing and fleeing her image; the wound she deals him represents his graduation into the world of adult relationships, marriage, maturity.
Child number three is conceived with his plainer, safer wife Alicja in the dawn of this more settled era, and child number four at its close. There follows a period in which Felix, now divorced, is once more a free agent: his fifth child marks a coupling typical, as all these couplings are typical, of such a passage in life - a loveless but amicable enough encounter with a work colleague. Mouetta, Felix's second wife and the mother-to-be of his sixth child, represents the final chapter in this sexual history. "Her husband's feelings do not really matter any more. His purpose has been served, she thinks. Biology has overtaken him. Now he can either be a swan and stay, or be a dog and run from this, his sixth and final child."
Felix, in fact, has reacted variously to his children, where he has known of their existence. From his second, George, he kept his distance after Freda, the child's feminist mother, declared in pregnancy that the child belonged to her as much as her own body did and that Felix was to have nothing to do with it. At 18, George establishes his own relationship with his father and finds it inadequate. The two children from his marriage are "acknowledged" and, we are told, visit Felix at weekends. Bel, the fruit of his first liaison, has a child and a life of her own. Rosa, aged five, from Felix's divorced era, is shown seeking friendship with her half-siblings, for want of any real companionship from her parents.
There is, strikingly, no love. No familial love at least - for a man like Felix, romantic love, sexual love, is the seat of all human drama and all human frailty. "No one can doubt," he declares on stage, appropriately enough playing Don Juan, "not anyone who's lived at least, that love's the frailest tower of them all, meant to tumble, built to fall." Paternity, though a more lasting structure, is merely the neighbour of this grandeur. As for fatherhood, that's an invention, a choice, a personality trait.
All Crace's effects are saved for the end of the book when the children themselves start to speak, when their identities emerge from the shadowy fringes of Felix's consciousness. And the central preoccupation of this curious and finally affecting novel seems to be that a person can be made from each and all these couplings; that life is so robust and tenacious and yet so exquisitely refined in its detail, in the forms it takes. Crace's six conceptions ring true, if bleakly so. Indeed, all the children are finally shown seeking love in their different ways, as though to blot out the randomness with which they came into the world. And that is what human beings do.
Rachel Cusk's most recent novel is The Lucky Ones (Fourth Estate)