After the travesty that was my previous read, there was a lot of pressure for the next one to be worthwhile. I’ve had Nothing Can Hurt You for a while now and I was really looking forward to reading it. I almost started reading it last December but decided to stick with more seasonal books. I’m glad I waited because I’m not sure that I was in the right mindset last month. After a couple of false starts where I only got through one chapter a night, I raced to the end of this book. It’s the first time in ages when I’ve just stayed up reading. I got to the final chapter at the time I’d normally call lights out but I knew that I had to keep going. Any regret caused by my fatigue the next day was worth it.
Usually, when you hear that a book is based around the murder of a teenage girl, you’d probably start imaging the usual sort of crime thrillers. The kind of dark books that enjoy nothing more than putting an innocent woman through horrible torture or pain at the hands of a random man in her life. Usually, there’ll be some sort of sexual element because publishers know what they want and what they want is for all female characters to suffer as much as possible. You’d be forgiven for thinking that Nothing Can Hurt You would be another in a long long line of these psychological crime thrillers. However, Nicola Maye Goldberg has turned the tables on this tired trope and has challenged tradition. It’s exciting and original. It is also, in my opinion, way more unsettling that the likes of Girl on the Train.
The murder at the heart of the book is that of Sara Morgan, a student at an arts college. Sara’s body is found in the woods by a housewife and her boyfriend quickly confesses to the murder. A diagnosed schizophrenic, Blake, claims to have accidentally killed Sara after the pair took acid. So, from the start, there’s no real mystery to this murder mystery. Instead, each chapter is dedicated to a character who is connected to the murder in some way : the victim’s mother; her college friend; the local reporter covering the trial; the girl she used to babysit; the woman who went on to marry Blake, and more. The different chapters are told in either the first or third person and give us a glimpse into these characters’ lives.
Each of the chapters is a little vignette that acts as a character study. The link to Sara isn’t always explicit but there is always something that ties back to her. The individual stories show us people that have been affected by tragedy at some point in their lives. It deals with people experiencing addiction, difficult marriages, mental health issues, job dissatisfaction, and trouble relationships with their siblings. A theme that runs throughout the book is gender-based violence. This is a book that faces up to the issues of being a woman in modern society and the different dangers that might await them. This is what makes the book so unsettling. Unlike normal thrillers, this book doesn’t feel over-the-top or sensationalised. It is full of real threats and, in its own way, that’s terrifying.
It helps that there is an added layer to these familiar topics thanks to the butterfly effect of Sara’s murder. What adds an extra depth to these chapters is the haunting figure that sits just out of sight. It gives the books more of a dark and sombre atmosphere. There is something quite gothic about seemingly everyday tales when they are told in the wake of a young girl’s body being found. You expect the story to go in a specific direction so I found I was on edge for quite a lot of the book. It’s a very clever concept and a very refreshing take on this type of book. It also manages to bring some dark humour to proceedings and takes a certain delight in these odd comical moments.
This is the kind of book that every reader longs for. It is both very readable, well-written, and exciting. It brings something new and captures your attention from the start. Admittedly, some of the vignettes are more successful than others but that’s the same with any anthology I suppose. In terms of pace, this is a quick read but it’s impactful. I read the majority of it in one night and it was both an enjoyable and haunting experience. I loved every second of it.