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Nothing Can Hurt You


Nothing Can Hurt You

So many novels begin with, or center on, the murder of a young woman. In the telling, she becomes an object --- pitied, mourned, lost, silenced. Readers become voyeurs, observing her suffering and pain along with the characters. In NOTHING CAN HURT YOU, Nicola Maye Goldberg plays with the dead girl trope, offering something interesting without quite subverting it.

In 1997, a college student named Sara Morgan is murdered by her boyfriend, Blake Campbell. Blake, a schizophrenic, is off his usual medications and has taken LSD the night he slits her throat and leaves her outside. Blake confesses but serves no time as he is found not guilty by reason of insanity. Sara’s murder and Blake’s sentence throw the lives of those around them into turmoil. NOTHING CAN HURT YOU gives readers quick glimpses into those lives over a period of many years, arranged non-consecutively by Goldberg. Threaded through the connected but disjointed narrative is the story of a serial killer of women, John Logan, who had been caught in the same community just before Sara was killed. Goldberg offers parallels between Blake Campbell and John Logan, but in the end concludes that their crimes are fundamentally different in intent, if not consequence. Whether or not she is convincing in this assertion will be up to readers.

"NOTHING CAN HURT YOU has a gentle prose style. Goldberg lets her characters move about in their emotions in a realistic manner."

The novel is a breathless series of introductions and hasty departures as we meet each of Goldberg’s interesting characters briefly and then quickly move on. Marianne is first; no stranger to trauma, she finds Sara’s body while on a walk by the river after being assaulted by her husband’s co-worker. Next is Katherine, a 28-year-old alcoholic who falls in love with Blake in a rehab program. Katherine confronts him about what he did and why, and he freely admits to her that he killed Sara, blaming it on a psychotic episode. Later in the book, it is revealed that Katherine and Blake get married and have two daughters together. In fact, theirs are the two lives that seem the most content and free from the damage wrought by Blake’s violence and Sara’s death.

Sam is the lone man to get a chapter. Friends with both Blake and Sara in college, and Blake’s roommate, Sam carries the pain of losing them both. He remains angry at Blake not just for killing Sara, but for “poisoning” all his memories of college. These days he spends more time worrying if Blake was a sociopath than questioning his own dubious relationship and habit of infidelity. Many of the figures in the novel share a similar shifting of focus, a de-centering from Sara. Their thoughts and concerns rest with Blake or themselves. Sometimes this is due to youth, as with Jessica, who writes a series of letters to convicted killer John Logan about her babysitter, Sara Morgan. Others, like reporter Juliet, try to see the crime through an objective lens. The women in both Blake and Sara’s families make appearances, giving Goldberg the chance to explore how the crime rippled through their lives and changed them in various ways.

NOTHING CAN HURT YOU has a gentle prose style. Goldberg lets her characters move about in their emotions in a realistic manner. Any of them would’ve warranted a longer exposition. In shifting the core of the tale from Sara to everyone else, Goldberg takes a risk. On the one hand, it means that the violence that Sara, who is the last character we meet, experienced on a random night spent with a friend leaving for college is neutralized. On the other hand, it means that the violence is made permanent. Readers are left in an uncomfortable place, though not necessarily in the way Goldberg intended.

This is a book about pain and loss, about lives led around the space of a missing person, an ended life. Goldberg has great insights and deftly handles her characters, even if the novel itself doesn’t coalesce. While the title is NOTHING CAN HURT YOU, the moral seems to be that much can hurt you, and it probably will.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on July 2, 2020

Nothing Can Hurt You
by Nicola Maye Goldberg