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Saint X


Saint X

Every year, millions of American tourists wash up on the white sand beaches of places like Aruba, Barbados and Martinique. They come to these picturesque islands seeking a respite from winter’s bitter cold and the stress or banality of their daily lives back home. For them, the Caribbean is less a real place than an imagined ideal, a place where rum-based cocktails flow like water and all their troubles melt away.

But paradise is more complicated than it appears at first glance, as Alexis Schaitkin reveals in her deft, accomplished debut, SAINT X. This slow-burn literary thriller opens in the mid-1990s, when the Thomas family is spending the New Year’s holiday at a pristine resort on the fictional island of Saint X --- “a lovely nowhere suspended in gin-clear water.” Nineteen-year-old Alison and seven-year-old Claire are traveling with their parents. Awkward, shy Claire is stuck in the shadow of her vibrant, beautiful older sister, a freshman at Princeton who approaches this getaway with a hefty dose of teenage boredom and cynicism. She’s also using this trip to test out her new sexual power; she knows that “as she walks, heads turn --- young men openly; older men, more subtly; older women, longingly.”

"...[a] deft, accomplished debut... [S]hifting between Claire and Clive’s points of view allows SAINT X to cleverly subvert our expectations, as her assumptions about what happened the night her sister died are gradually challenged by his version of events."

It should be a pleasant if unremarkable vacation. But the night before the family is to return home, Alison disappears. After a frantic search, her body is found submerged in a pool on a nearby cay. Two young resort employees named Clive and Edwin are arrested, but with no solid evidence linking them to any crime, they’re released. Meanwhile, the Thomas family returns home and attempts to rebuild their lives.

Two decades later, Claire --- now going by Emily --- is an editor living in New York, still haunted by her sister’s death. Then, a chance encounter in a taxi thrusts Clive back into her life. Having found the man she believes to be responsible for her sister’s murder, she becomes obsessed, befriending him under false pretenses in the hope that he eventually will reveal the truth about what happened that January night. She’s looking for a tidy ending, one that has “the power to salvage everything that had happened” and perhaps give her sister’s death a larger meaning.

In this meditation on the long-lasting effects of grief and loss, Schaitkin shows how both Claire and Clive’s lives have been indelibly shaped by Alison’s death. His life has been one of slow-motion tragedy, as he sees his modest dreams for a wife, family and quiet happiness destroyed by a chance encounter with a young woman. For her part, Claire is still living in her sibling’s “oppressive shadow,” having let the mystery of Alison’s death become “her most sacred vanity” --- that special thing that sets her apart from others. Neither has fully recovered from the events of that night.

Over several dark winter months, Claire builds an uneasy relationship with Clive. Their interactions are colored by differences of race and class, with Schaitkin juxtaposing the life of easy privilege enjoyed by the kind of people who visit Saint X with the working-class existence of the island’s full-time residents. As an adult, Claire is no longer a tourist on Saint X. But she still sees Clive as someone who exists primarily to meet her needs, as she inserts herself into his life and pushes him to reveal his secrets to assuage her curiosity. But for Clive, Claire is nothing more than a “f---ed-up girl,” another young woman (like her sister before her) who sees his home as a setting for her story, not a place with rich, compelling dramas of its own.

Schaitkin uses a myriad of perspectives to explore the circumstances leading to Alison’s death and the ripple effects it causes. We hear not just from Claire and Clive, but also from Alison through her audio diaries and a range of other minor characters peripherally associated with the event. The latter offer yet another perspective on what really happened to Alison, though these brief interruptions sometimes feel intrusive. But shifting between Claire and Clive’s points of view allows SAINT X to cleverly subvert our expectations, as her assumptions about what happened the night her sister died are gradually challenged by his version of events. However, the truth remains elusive, with Claire finally realizing that the closure she thinks she’s after is impossible. In the end, all one can do after tragedy is to try to move on.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on February 18, 2020

Saint X
by Alexis Schaitkin