The BookBrowse Review

Published June 9, 2021

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Saint X
Saint X
by Alexis Schaitkin

Paperback (25 May 2021), 368 pages.
Publisher: Celadon
ISBN-13: 9781250219572
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Hailed as a "marvel of a book" and "brilliant and unflinching," Alexis Schaitkin's stunning debut, Saint X, is a haunting portrait of grief, obsession, and the bond between two sisters never truly given the chance to know one another.

Claire is only seven years old when her college-age sister, Alison, disappears on the last night of their family vacation at a resort on the Caribbean island of Saint X. Several days later, Alison's body is found in a remote spot on a nearby cay, and two local men - employees at the resort - are arrested. But the evidence is slim, the timeline against it, and the men are soon released. The story turns into national tabloid news, a lurid mystery that will go unsolved. For Claire and her parents, there is only the return home to broken lives.

Years later, Claire is living and working in New York City when a brief but fateful encounter brings her together with Clive Richardson, one of the men originally suspected of murdering her sister. It is a moment that sets Claire on an obsessive pursuit of the truth - not only to find out what happened the night of Alison's death but also to answer the elusive question: Who exactly was her sister? At seven, Claire had been barely old enough to know her: a beautiful, changeable, provocative girl of eighteen at a turbulent moment of identity formation.

As Claire doggedly shadows Clive, hoping to gain his trust, waiting for the slip that will reveal the truth, an unlikely attachment develops between them, two people whose lives were forever marked by the same tragedy.

For readers of Emma Cline's The Girls and Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies, Saint X is a flawlessly drawn and deeply moving story that culminates in an emotionally powerful ending.

INDIGO BAY

BEGIN WITH AN AERIAL VIEW. Slip beneath the clouds and there it is, that first glimpse of the archipelago—a moment, a vista, a spectacle of color so sudden and intense it delivers a feeling like plunging a cube of ice in warm water and watching it shatter: the azure sea, the emerald islands ringed with snow-white sand; perhaps, on this day, a crimson tanker at the edge of the tableau.

Come down a bit lower and the islands reveal their topographies, valleys and flatlands and the conic peaks of volcanoes, some of them still active. There is Mount Scenery on Saba, Mount Liamugia on Saint Kitts, Mount Pelée on Martinique, the Quill on Saint Eustatius, La Soufrière on Saint Lucia and also on Saint Vincent, La Grande Soufrière on Guadeloupe's Basse-Terre, Soufrière Hills on Montserrat, and Grande Soufrière Hills on tiny Dominica, which is beset by no fewer than nine volcanoes. The volcanoes yield an uneasy sense of juxtaposition—the dailiness of island life abutting the looming threat of eruption. (On some islands, on some days, flakes of ash fall softly through the air, pale and fine, before settling on grassy hillsides and the eaves of rooftops.)

Roughly in the middle of the archipelago lies an island some forty kilometers long by twelve wide. It is a flat, buff, dusty place, its soil thin and arid, the terrain dotted with shallow salt ponds and the native vegetation consisting primarily of tropical scrub: sea grape, cacti, wild frangipani. (There is a volcano here, too, Devil Hill, though it is so small, and the magma rises to its surface so infrequently, that it is useless as both a threat and an attraction.) The island is home to eighteen thousand residents and receives some ninety thousand tourists annually. From above, it resembles a fist with a single long finger pointing west.

The north side of the island faces the Atlantic. Here, the coast is narrow and rocky, the water seasonally variable and sometimes rough. Nearly all of the residents live on this side, most of them in the tiny capital town, the Basin, where cinder-block schools, food marts, and churches mingle with faded colonial buildings in pastel hues: the governor-general's petal-pink Georgian mansion; the mint-green national bank; Her Majesty's Prison, eggshell-blue. (A prison next to a bank—a favorite local joke.) On this coast, the beaches' names bespeak their shortcomings: Salty Cove. Rocky Shoal. Manchineel Bay. Little Beach.

On the south side of the island, the gentle waves of the Caribbean Sea lap against sand fine as powder. Here, resorts punctuate the coast. The Oasis, Salvation Point, the Grand Caribbee, and the island's crown jewel, Indigo Bay, all of them festooned with bougainvillea, hibiscus, and flamboyant, beautiful deceptions meant to suggest that this island is a lush, fertile place.

Scattered in the sea around the island are a dozen or so uninhabited cays, the most notable of which are Carnival Cay, Tamarind Island, and Fitzjohn (famous, at least locally, as the home of the Fitzjohn lizard). The cays are popular spots for excursions—snorkeling, romantic picnics, guided expeditions through their limestone caverns. The closest of the cays to the main island is the ironically named Faraway Cay, which sits not five hundred meters off the coast at Indigo Bay and which, owing to its nacreous beach, its wild landscapes, and the pristine waterfall at its center, would be a popular destination like the other cays, were it not overrun by feral goats, which survive on sea purslane and prickly pear.

The island's visitors have little sense of its geography. If asked, most would be unable to sketch its basic shape. They cannot locate it on a map, cannot distinguish it from the other small landmasses that dot the sea between Florida and Venezuela. When a taxi brings them from the airport to their hotel, or from their hotel to a Caribbean fusion restaurant on Mayfair Road, or when they take a sunset cruise aboard the catamaran Faustina, or disembark their cruise ship at Hibiscus Harbour, or when a speedboat whisks them to Britannia Bay to tour the old sugar estate, they do not know if they are traveling north or south, east or west. The island is a lovely nowhere suspended in gin-clear water.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin. Copyright © 2020 by Alexis Schaitkin. Excerpted by permission of Celadon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. What does the island setting contribute to the story? What about the juxtaposition of New York City?
  2. What do you think Claire's habit of writing words in the air with her finger demonstrates about her?
  3. What's the symbolism of Faraway Cay and the woman with hooves for feet? What does that mythology add to the story?
  4. Why do you think the author chose to intersperse the voices of minor characters, such as the movie actor and other vacationers, throughout the book? What effect does this achieve?
  5. What does Claire's name change to Emily signify to you?
  6. Did you ever think Clive might pose a threat to Emily when he found out who she was?
  7. What does Clive's nickname Gogo indicate about his personality? About Edwin's?
  8. Emily's world in New York becomes very small after she encounters Clive. Do you think that was intentional or unintentional on her part? What might have motivated her to turn inward?
  9. What do Alison's recorded diary entries reveal to Emily? Was Emily right to listen to them, or do you think it was an invasion of privacy? What about their mom?
  10. What are the similarities between Emily's life in New York and Clive's? What are the differences?
  11. What do you think about Edwin's relationship with Sara?
  12. Alison witnessed a pivotal moment in Clive and Edwin's relationship. How did that shape the rest of the narrative—Clive and Edwin's relationship, their futures, Alison's tragedy?
  13. When Emily learns the truth, and remembers the night before Alison disappeared, what do you think is her primary emotion? Grief? Relief? Guilt? Something else?
  14. Do you think Emily coming into Clive's life was ultimately a bad thing or a good thing for Clive?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Celadon. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

Years after the death of her 18-year-old sister while on vacation in the Caribbean, a young woman becomes fixated on a man suspected of murdering her.

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In the opening pages of her debut novel, Alexis Schaitkin introduces the reader to an idyllic beach scene, where mostly American tourists are lounging around on the fictional island of Saint X. Within a few pages idyll turns to tragedy as the 18-year-old daughter of the Thomas family, Alison, goes missing, and days later turns up dead. Two men are charged with her murder, but both are acquitted, and the mystery goes unsolved. Years later, we follow Alison's younger sister, Claire, who was only seven years old at the time of Alison's death. Now living in New York, Claire has a chance encounter that brings her into contact with Clive Richardson, one of the two men that had been charged with killing Alison. Believing their encounter to be an act of fate, Claire latches onto her connection with Clive in an attempt to discover what really happened to her sister.

When we meet Claire in the present day she is in her early 30s, and it appears that Alison's death hasn't exactly been haunting her in the intervening years. She's had a relatively ordinary adolescence, all things considered: she studied, went on dates, partied. While she hasn't made peace with Alison's death, neither has she really tried to. It isn't until Claire meets Clive that she begins to confront this tragic episode from her past, and in doing so, ends up seeing Alison in a completely different light. The glamorous, charismatic young woman that she had idolized as a child now appears an insecure teenage girl, and in investigating her death, Claire finds herself asking questions about who Alison really was.

The theme of privilege is at the forefront of the narrative: the two sisters had grown up in an affluent family, but was this something that Alison resented or reveled in? We explore the possibility that Alison may have hated her family's lavish island vacations to the point where she would throw herself into local culture to prove that she was something more than just a rich American girl on vacation. Naturally, the question follows: are we ever able to truly escape ourselves? Claire wonders if Alison found the answer.

The opposite perspective on Caribbean tourism is then explored in Clive's narrative. Schaitkin delves into the symbiotic relationship between the local islanders and the tourists that feed their economy. Clive's reasons for immigrating to the U.S. are eventually revealed, but first, the reader is shown his childhood of poverty and loneliness, allayed when he meets his best friend Edwin, with whom he would eventually be accused of murder. The narrative mostly stays with Claire in the first person, but these third-person interludes recounting Clive's youth provide glimpses into a world completely distinct from Claire and Alison's.

Saint X is not a traditional mystery in the sense that the novel is driven less by the crime and more by its aftermath. (The question of whether there even is a crime underscores the narrative; the island's police force ultimately declares Alison's death a tragic accident, an explanation that her father struggles to accept.) It's a book that gathers steam as it goes, with themes that gradually reveal themselves to be more complex and multifaceted than they first appear. Schaitkin raises questions about privilege, obsession, guilt and grief that Claire grapples with alongside the reader, right up to the book's thrilling conclusion.

Reviewed by Rachel Hullett

Washington Post
The effect of race pervades this story — white privilege is examined through the wealthy tourists lolling on island beaches while people of color satisfy their thirst for tropical drinks and a need to feel special. You can feel the wait staff cringe as the tourists strive to show how egalitarian they are. All these weighty issues serve to buoy this novel rather than weigh it down. We’re invited to meditate on pressing social problems even as we enjoy the intriguing drama surrounding Alison’s short life.

New York Times
All these sub-narratives dedicated to minor and major characters, chapters that do little to move the plot along, could easily have resulted in a novel that buckled under the weight of its structural ambitions, but Schaitkin pulls it off without a hitch...Saint X is hypnotic, delivering acute social commentary on everything from class and race to familial bonds and community, and yet its weblike nature never confuses, or fails to captivate.

Publishers Weekly
his is a smart page-turner, both thought-provoking and effortlessly entertaining.

Library Journal
Questions of race and privilege deepen the impact of the characters' struggle, emphasizing the societal norms each individual and every nation must address for equity to become more than a mission statement or campaign slogan. Readers who enjoy a mystery with emotional depth will find this a compelling and impressive debut.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
This killer debut is both a thriller with a vivid setting and an insightful study of race, class, and obsession.

Author Blurb Christopher Tilghman, author of Thomas and Beal in the Midi
Saint X is slightly miraculous. Funny, chilling, moving, and throughout, deeply intelligent. We follow Emily into the depths of her obsessive quest with fascination and, in the end, rise with her as she moves on. This is an utterly original and engrossing novel written with the surest possible hand.

Author Blurb Chang-rae Lee, author of On Such A Full Sea
Here is a marvel of a book, a kaleidoscopic examination of race and privilege, family and self, told with the propulsive, kinetic focus of a crime thriller. Brilliant and unflinching, Saint X marks the debut of a stunningly gifted writer. I simply couldn't stop reading.

Write your own review

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Victoria
Thought- provoking debut
Thanks to Celadon Books and Edelweiss for the advance copy. The novel appears to be inspired by the Natalee Holloway case with many similarities to the facts there. You could term this a mystery, as the final resolution doesn’t come until the end of the book, but it’s not really a mystery but an examination of white/wealthy privilege and inherent racism. I found the book thought provoking and would recommend it.

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Caribbean Immigration to the United States

Graph showing increase in Caribbean immigration to US from 1980 to 2017In Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin, one of the main characters is a Caribbean immigrant working as a taxi driver in New York City. While the island depicted in the novel is fictional, people hailing from the Caribbean make up a large portion of the immigrant population in the U.S.

The individual islands in the Caribbean are all distinct in terms of culture, climate, history and dialect, but many of these nations share patterns when it comes to immigration. According to a Pew Research study from 2017, Caribbean people make up 10% of America's immigrant population. Looking at Caribbean immigrants as a group, the largest populations come from Cuba (29%), then the Dominican Republic (26%), Jamaica (16%), and Haiti (15%), according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). The U.S. Census groups Latin American and Caribbean countries together, and puts the total number of immigrants from this region collectively at 21.2 million in 2010.

Since the abolition of slavery in the regions colonized by Britain and France in 1834 and 1848 respectively, the Caribbean has seen more voluntary migration than any other region in the world—according to a 2017 survey by the IMF, 22% of the ethnically Caribbean population lives abroad. Migration from the Caribbean to the U.S. increased in the mid-20th century, when many immigrants were enticed by the booming post-World War II economy. Following the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 in the U.S., the naturalization process became easier for those from countries outside Europe, and the 1960s saw a dramatic increase in skilled professionals relocating from Caribbean nations. Many of their families either came with them or followed a short time later. Between 1980 and 2000, the Caribbean immigrant population in the U.S. increased by over 50% every 10 years, according to the MPI (see graph).

Reasons for immigration are naturally complex and varied. In some cases, those who are highly skilled in a field may leave their home country or region for better opportunities in the U.S. or abroad. The mass exodus of young and skilled workers is a phenomenon known as "brain drain," or "human capital flight." This practice results in economic loss for the home country, a loss that carries on through the years as there are fewer educated and skilled people on hand to teach and train the next generation. Some countries, like Jamaica, have implemented governmental initiatives to bring skilled workers back home from abroad. Caribbean countries (with the exception of Cuba and Haiti) have also seen an increase in retirees returning to their nations of origin.

Some people migrate because of issues that are entirely out of their control, such as natural disasters and organized crime (the murder rate in the Caribbean is one of the highest in the world). The U.S. is a popular destination, since most islands in the Caribbean have been U.S. territories or under U.S. control at some point, leading to government initiatives that encourage migration. One such initiative is the Diversity Visa lottery program, which began in 1990 and offers 55,000 visas annually to citizens from countries with low immigration rates to the U.S. in order to diversify the population. There have also been nation-specific legislative acts in the U.S. providing immigration opportunities for Cubans and Haitians in particular—the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, and the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designation offered after the earthquake in Haiti in 2010. (Homeland Security ended this TPS program in 2019.)

Once in the U.S., Caribbean immigrants may obtain a green card through family sponsorship programs, or by seeking asylum, and are more likely to be naturalized as U.S. citizens than immigrants from most other regions (59% of Caribbean immigrants are naturalized citizens, according to the MPI—the national average is 49%). The majority of Caribbean immigrants in the U.S. live in Florida, followed by New York, with New York City being the top metropolitan area for individuals with Caribbean origins.

Caribbean immigration increase graph, courtesy of Migration Policy Institute

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