Prolific West (A Stroke of Genius, 1995; The Tent of Orange Mist, 1995) strikes again, this time with an affectionate but characteristically showy paean to his mother. West calls her ``an orchid who doubled as a gardener,'' aptly describing a woman of fragile health but redoubtable will and demonstrating his own reverent amazement at her strength. The only daughter of an English butcher, Mildred Noden West ran her father's shop while three brothers went to war, then sacrificed a promising career as a concert pianist when one died. She endured extensive surgery in order to bear children and, having paid dearly for fertility, seemed determined to make the most of child-rearing. Mildred instilled in the young Paul a love of music and literature, and West credits her ``fierce, harrying love'' and goading ambition for his development as a man of letters. He pays tribute with his trademark high-octane prose and with dense (and distracting) allusion-studded riffs that detail his intellectual coming-of-age under Mildred's direction. Possessed of a restless intellect more impressive than entertaining, West mars his storytelling with a constant need to dazzle, and he indulges in wordplay and digression at the expense of clarity. He often abandons his mother's story to tell his own (as when he relates the rigorous preparation for exams at Oxford) but insists that she is always in his thoughts, if not his narrative. The most affecting moments are when the two are alone in the dark at the cinema during the Blitz; listening to cricket matches on a portable radio in the backyard; and in later years, enacting a touching, ten-minute ritual of waving goodbye. West's affection for his mother grows with age, and he watches with some bemusement when she embraces television and, in her nineties, moves to a new home and befriends a motley crew of eccentrics. A taxing, distracted read whose tender mercies are too few and far between.