THIS book, by the former literary editor of the Independent, opens with the eruption of a volcano and ends with the conception of a child. Only six years separate the events, but, as one occurs near Anzio and the other at Zanica, there's a whole alphabet in between. Sebastian Faulks uses each letter to give a setting to a chapter, so it's D for Dorking, N for New York and P for Paris (as you might imagine, Q is in Central America and X in China). To explain the inspiration for this game, the original fool's alphabet - A for 'orses, B for mutton, etc - is quoted in full, with the rider that any fool can invent his own.

It is a challenging conceit, imposing a rigid structure that could easily become restrictive, but for the most part Faulks rises to his own challenge. He tells the story of Pietro Russell, born in 1950. That nice round number is a useful bench mark, because Faulks plays havoc with chronology. Pietro's life is told in flashbacks and fast-forwards, moving from Dorking 1963 to Evanston, Illinois, 1985 to Fulham 1964 to Ghent 1981. Readers dazed by the system can easily work out how old they are at each stage, and thus get a grip on the narrative.

It is worth the effort. This is a subtle book, full of glancing allusions and sly humour. The facts of Pietro's life are straightforward: a placid, greedy baby, he grows into a solemn child who reads to his Italian mother 'in a halting, loud voice, like an East European trade unionist determined to deliver in English a fraternal greeting to delegates'. After a spell in a latter-day Dotheboys, where the only hope of fun lies in 'the slim chance of making someone suck sulphuric acid through a pipette', he moves on to an alarmingly liberated international school. There he meets Harry, who becomes his best friend, and the lovely Laura, who is gently and deftly to deprive him of his innocence and sanity.

Pietro recovers from her and drifts into a career in photography, then into marriage and fatherhood. There is nothing intrinsically dramatic about such a life, but what keeps you reading is the undercurrent of connection, coincidence and reflection beneath the bare facts. Sometimes Pietro's observations are staccato and laconic: arriving at a ski resort, he sees only 'people in fur coats with leather skins and vacant eyes'; and on the way to his therapist in North Oxford, he idly - and dismissively - logs the houses made of 'sturdy brick with damp gardens and rocketing values'.

Some locations provoke more thoughtful writing. Israel proves to be the strongest stimulus, particularly the barren, bleached landscape of the Judaean hills near Bethlehem: 'the land looked neither especially Arab nor Jewish nor promised. More than anything else, it looked frightening: the object of too much desire.' A visit to Rome is an excuse for a short meditation on Keats, and Paris allows him to marvel at the continuous ribbon of sound that is rapidly spoken French.

With his mother, the child Pietro visits Sorrento where, unknown to everyone but the reader, he silently admires the same wrought-iron sign that his father had noticed long ago. Later, his wife describes her school days in Belgium; again, only the reader, who has heard the grandfather reminiscing about Mons, knows why the thought of Belgian schoolgirls amuses him. Finally, the sort of accident that does sometimes just happen sends Pietro to stay at the very same Italian pensione where he himself was conceived. This time, although only we know what happened that night, even he begins to imagine it.

The book has a bittersweet aftertaste. It is about how much we all inherit or wrest from our parents, how casually we administer the slow-release capsule of heredity and experience to our children. Bedevilled with doubts as to the value of his own existence, Pietro is given a sense of reality and purpose by the fact of fatherhood: 'he had created a need for himself in his children'. And yet, looking at his new- born first daughter, he also recognises 'the innocent confidence with which she had confronted the world, another being, another attempt, undaunted, unworn- down, oblivious to the millions who had preceded her'.