An early chapter in Donna Tartt's third novel The Goldfinch begins with the words "a wilderness of gilt." The phrase refers to the workshop of Hobie, the furniture restorer who becomes a father figure to Theo Decker, the novel's narrator. Add just one letter to the phrase, turning it into "a wilderness of guilt," and you are left with a pretty good four-word summary of what Tartt's story is about.
Theo, 13, and his mother stop at a New York City art museum on their way to his school, where he is being disciplined for misbehavior. A bomb explodes, killing his mother and leaving Theo shaken. In the confusion that follows, the boy slips a priceless painting called "The Goldfinch" into his school bag and walks home. His wilderness of guilt begins with his blaming himself for mother's death. If he hadn't gotten into trouble in school or if he had just told his mother he was hungry and wanted something to eat before they entered the museum, she would still be alive. Then there is the painting, which he doesn't want but doesn't know how to return to the museum.
As time passes, imagined guilt becomes actual guilt. Theo becomes a drug addict and, after becoming an adult and a partner in Hobie's furniture shop, sells fake antiques for inflated prices and pocketing the money to support his habit. The painting becomes an ever heavier burden. His life spirals out of control, lost as he is in his wilderness of guilt.
Much happens in Tartt's 771-page novel, yet she writes at such a deliberate pace that sometimes it seems nothing is happening at all. Some readers will object to this, yet as I found when I read her earlier novel, The Little Friend, her prose is never better than when nothing much seems to be happening.
There is no cheap grace in Tartt's work. She does, however, suggest the possibility, so unlike what Thomas Hardy expressed in his best novels, that good can sometimes be a product of evil, that easy or not, there can be a way out of the wilderness.