By Nicola Maye Goldberg
Oddly, the most improbable character in this novel is the one who came alive best for me: murderer Blake Campbell.
Author Nicola Maye Goldberg has crafted this story around the December 1997 murder of college student Sara Morgan.
The murder was committed by Sara’s boyfriend, Blake, a diagnosed schizophrenic who had dropped acid before killing Sara and leaving her body in the woods near a river.
When arrested, Blake confesses, sobbing. His expensive attorney pushes for a verdict of not guilty by reason of temporary insanity, which the judge grants. He spends several months in a psychiatric hospital, then a rehab unit and then is released.
Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different person who has some connection to Sara’s murder, insignificant in some cases and consequential in others. Marianne finds Sara’s body; Katherine meets Blake in rehab and learns about Sara’s murder through gossip; Gemma, Blake’s sister, has a young daughter who is starting to exhibit worrisome behavior.
Tracy, a prosecutor whose younger sister was raped 30 years ago and never recovered a normal life, has to take a position on Blake’s attorney’s request for a finding of not guilty. Juliet, a reporter for a small local newspaper covering the trial of serial killer John Logan, arrested a few weeks before Blake, is trying to trying to squeeze a career-making story out of Sara’s murder. Jessica, who was babysat by Sara, has started writing Logan because she noticed that Sara looked a lot alike his other victims and she wonders if maybe he — not Blake — killed Sara.
One of the more disturbing characters is Luna, Sara’s half-sister, who was only two years old when Sara was murdered. After high school graduation, Luna dyes her hair to look like Sara, an agonizing event for her father, who has forgiven Blake. Luna runs away from home then begins stalking Blake.
When Blake realizes who she is, Luna tells him that it’s unfair that he should be alive, married, with a daughter and a good career, when Sara had none of those things.
“There’s no such thing as justice,” he tells her. “It’s an idea that makes people feel better, that’s all. There is only revenge, or mercy. And you can’t have both.”
One flaw of this book is that so many of the characters, seem unable to live their lives in any full or healthy sense. Goldberg has invested most of her creative effort on characters who are struggling to survive and precious little on those who have made courageous steps forward: Sara’s father who could forgive Blake; Tracy, who despite what happened to her sister and her instinct to punish Blake to the fullest extent of the law, can open her mind to the possibility that he didn’t know what he was doing at the time of the murder.
For that matter, there is Blake himself, who despite continuing guilt, regret and grief, has found the courage to live his life, to move onward from Sara’s death without abandoning her memory. He doesn’t even merit a chapter.
Goldberg is an elegant writer and a master of poignancy, but ultimately NOTHING CAN HURT YOU focuses its beauty on its weakest characters.
About the Author: Nicola Maye Goldberg
Nicola Maye Goldberg is the author of OTHER WOMEN (2016) and THE DOLL FACTORY (2017) in addition to NOTHING CAN HURT YOU (2020).
She graduated from Bard College, where she received the Mary McCarthy Prize. She earned a master’s of fine arts degree from Columbia University.