There is a murder at the heart of Nicola Maye Goldberg’s latest novel Nothing Can Hurt You, but this is not a murder mystery. Those looking for a thriller should look elsewhere. Instead, what Goldberg delivers is a patchwork of a novel that gives a range of insights into issues of consent, retribution, grief and violence against women. It does this through the lens of that initial murder, an event with effects that ripple out into family and community.
The book opens with Marianne, a housewife who has moved to a small town in upstate New York as a way of dealing with ‘episodes’ that she can not control. Into this story comes her husband’s work colleague Ted who’s daughter has gone missing, a fact that does not stop him assaulting Marianne when he is staying at their house. It is Marianne who finds the frozen body of Sara Morgan, a local college student murdered by her boyfriend Blake. It emerges through the various narratives that Blake was later found not guilty by reason of insanity due to the drugs he was on when he committed the murder. Into this mix she also throws in the story of Logan, a serial killer who killed six women and was arrested just before Sara’s murder. The remaining stories circle around Sara’s death but also the Logan case from a range of points of view, not shedding light on the events themselves so much as contextualising them.
There have been a number of books recently that have, as part of the narrative, explored a crime from the perspective of a range of only tangentially connected bystanders. Laura Lippmann did this in Lady in the Lake and Alexis Schaitkin did something similar with interludes in her debut Saint X. In both of these cases these additional perspectives add depth and context to the overarching narrative, which in both cases focussed on resolving a central murder mystery.
Goldberg is not as interested in a mystery so much as the social attitudes associated with a range of issues that connect to that initial murder. Each chapter is a short story that changes gear, perspective and time (some come before, some are set many years later) but together they form a mosiac. And each story carries a punch. Whether it is the woman in rehab who befriends Blake, or the local journalist covering the Logan trial who also becomes interested in Sara’s story, the teenager who writes to Logan in prison, or Sara’s half-sister Luna who just wants to understand better the man who killed her sister.
Nothing Can Hurt You is not so much a whodunnit or even a why or how dunnit but rather a scan of a society and how it both enables and reacts to a young woman being murdered. And while there is no mystery to be solved here, the storied develop their own momentum that keeps the pages turning through to the last story which provides some illumination but, fittingly for this collection, no easy resolution.