6 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 40

Oh, my Papa!

Digby Durrant

SIX by Jim Crace Penguin, 116.99, pp. 356, ISBN 0670881163 Felix ('Lix') Dern is under a curse. 'Every woman he dares to sleep with bears his child.' There are five already and Jim Crace's new novel opens with number six on the way. It began in 1979 when Lix was a gauche 21year-old drama student training his binoculars on the girl sitting at a bar below his window. He's too embarrassed by the cherry-red birthmark below his left eye to pursue matters, but the girl knows she's watched and brushing aside his feeble protests forces her way into his eyrie where she kisses his blemish, takes his virginity and gives him the beginnings of a confidence that will make him an international star and his blemish a worshipped trademark. The nameless girl disappears, carrying the seed of Lix's first child. This is a fairytale introduction to the courts of Jove if ever there was one and paves the way for the atmosphere of dotty unreality that pervades the whole book.

Freda is a different matter: a fiery campus agitator who only has sex on her terms, not his ('No kisses ... it's counter-revolutionary'), straddling Lix as no more than an instrument to gratify her own needs. Their son is to be exclusively hers. Seven years of abstinence follow, only heavy petting allowed. Then Alieja, a rich Polish girl, overcomes Lix's resolve though it's only when he excites her and, more importantly, himself by massaging her with aromatic fessandra leaves that he gives his all, with the usual outcome.

Lix makes a film with Pacino while Alicja becomes a local politician and takes a lover who's had a vasectomy. Over a drunken lunch with Lix and his cronies she shames her husband by saying she's never had an orgasm. When they get home, ready for a row, they find the house burgled, have sex to forget about it and baby four is on the way. Lix's contraceptives were in the wallet the burglars stole but it wouldn't have made any difference if they hadn't taken it. Lix is under no mysterious curse other than his failure to master a contraceptive. Either he hasn't got one or, if he does, it slips or stays in too long or buckles like a sock. Lix and Alicja part, he returns to abstinence until Millennium Night when he gives his leading lady a daughter. He then marries Mouetta, and soon she feels his sixth baby's first kicks. It is fitting that this holy idiot lives in a nameless city with a mediaeval past and a buzz like New York, once clubbed City of Balconies by Rousseau, City of Kisses by a photographer and City of Mathematical Truth by some city crackpots who celebrate the Millennium a year later than anyone else. Six is not what you'd expect from the author of Quarantine and Being Dead, two sombre and memorable books, but then nothing Crace ever writes is what you expect. But I, for one, will approach his next with caution.