Alexis Schaitkin’s debut novel, Saint X, opens with the languid ennui of a mid-winter Caribbean vacation. An omniscient narrator sets scenes filled with string-topped bikinis, rum fruit punches, sunburns, and sex. “As afternoon slips into evening, the guests drift away from the beach. They spend the hours before dinner recovering from the day—the sun, the heat, the booze, beauty so vivid their eyes crave a rest from it.” The lazy torpor slides from one day to the next, until one family’s sojourn in Saint X’s island paradise abruptly ends. Their teenage daughter has gone missing. Searchers look everywhere until finally, her body is found at the base of a waterfall on a nearby cay. The picturesque site holds no clues revealing how Alison got there, or why.
At that moment, the tone and tempo of Saint X irrevocably change. Unlike so many less-gifted writers, Schaitkin is able to shift from voice to voice, from observer to observer, from participant to participant. Each ensuing chapter focuses on one or two people’s experiences, either during that fatal week or later when questions and recriminations mount. Schaitkin brings each individual to life with remarkable skill. Sometimes she moves someone into the future, still haunted by what occurred on Saint X. Several times a different character will relive the week of Alison’s death, recalling particular events from different points of view.
Alison’s little sister called Claire at the time, but Emily as an adult, remembers few details of her sister’s life and death yet comes to obsess about the sister she can never really know and the mystery she can never really solve. Eleven years separated the two, so the complications of Alison’s eighteen-year-old self puzzle her little sister, even as that little sister herself becomes an adult. One chapter narrates the vacation week from Alison’s point of view until the reader suddenly realizes it is being told by Emily, imagining Alison’s point of view. Masterful, and utterly intriguing!
Other characters tell their stories, too, Some are key players in the Saint X tragedy while some play only minor roles. Clive, for example, stands accused of the crime until a reconstructed timeline suggests he and his buddy Edwin couldn’t have been at fault. Alison and Emily’s parents disbelieve the police investigation, spending countless hours and dollars trying to refute the official conclusion to the case. Lesser Saint X participants, and even some of Alison’s high school and college friends, offer snapshots of the victim, suggest patterns that may have led to her death. The result resembles an oratorio, a layering of soprano and tenor, alto and bass, that swell together as the novel progresses to its climactic chorus. Another one of those books a reader can hardly put down.
Besides the technical brilliance of this talented writer, there are thematic strains in Saint X that Schiatkin clearly wants the reader to consider. The wealth and privilege of the tourists brush intensely against the less privileged existence of the Caribbean natives who cater to the tourists’ every imagined need. A few of Schiatkin’s characters muse about this schism at length—Alison in her diary and Emily, later, in her endless reconstructions—but many never see the disjuncture. That, too, offers a thematic disconnect that underpins the novel’s mystery. What does privilege really entail? And how does race underline the inequalities? In this respect, Saint X is a timely novel, but it most definitely is not a moralistic novel. Instead, Schiatkin poses all those shifting points of view into a kaleidoscope of color and sounds, a kaleidoscope very like the ambiguities of the Caribbean itself. – Ann Ronald
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