BookBrowse Reviews Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin

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Saint X

by Alexis Schaitkin

Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin X
Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2020, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2021, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rachel Hullett
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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.

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

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in March 2020, and has been updated for the June 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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