Saint X (2020) – Alexis Schaitkin

Title:Saint X
Author:Alexis Schaitkin
Date published:2020
Publisher:Picador/Pan Macmillan SA
Star Rating:⭐⭐⭐⭐
Disclaimer:Pan Macmillan SA kindly sent me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review

“What I can say is this: While the details of this story may be products of my imagination, I trust its broad strokes and core themes. I believe that for my sister, our family vacation coincided with one of those brief, intense intervals of identity formation we all experience from time to time in our lives. She arrived at Indigo Bay at that critical moment when the girl cuts herself on the shards of her own reflection and watches, baffled and thrilled, as the blood begins to flow”.

Alison Thomas was only eighteen when she went missing and then died on the island of Saint X on the last night of a family vacation. That night, in 1995, Alison left the hotel room she shared with her seven year old sister Claire at the Indigo Bay resort, and went on a joyride with Clive Richardson and Edwin Hastie who were both employed at the resort. The next morning both men were back at work, but Alison was nowhere to be found, until much later when her body was discovered at a local waterfall by a rather famous actor also on holiday in the Caribbean. Claire remembers leaving the island days after they were meant to depart, her parents dragging her sister’s luggage between them.

Fast forward twenty years and Claire is living in New York and prefers to be called Emily. She’s working as an editor and lives alone in an illegal sublet basement of a dilapidated building in a neighborhood where she is the only white tenant. Somehow Emily feels as though this is where and how she is meant to live, even though it is not where or how she needs to live. Her relationship with her parents is strained, especially with her mother, who is still grieving and seems to have become a completely different version of herself. The anonymity of New York is the perfect place for Claire to simply exist, and it is where she will accidentally bump into Clive Richardson, one of the men accused of her sister’s murder.

Emily and Clive’s re-connection almost two decades after the Saint X incident is the beginning of a journey of obsession and discovery for Emily, and a dredging up of long-buried secrets for Clive, who is also living a life of quiet anonymity as a taxi driver. When Emily realizes the man driving her taxi one day is the same man who once served them drinks under their beach umbrellas on a beach of drastically white sand, she is immediately thrown back into the terrible days of her sister’s disappearance. Scouring the internet she discovers old Reddit articles pertaining to Alison and unsolved mysteries, and finds herself watching an ageing ‘true-life’ series with the insensitive name of Dying for Fun in which an episode was dedicated to Alison Thomas. On the internet and in the news her sister’s death is a ‘cold case’, a nineties cultural topic of no real significance… Except of course for the web of people that seem to have been affected by the death, and life, of Alison Thomas.

“We see so little of people. We forget how much submerged darkness there is around us at every moment. We forget until we are forced to remember”

The reader enters many lives, and it is through these multiple perspectives that we learn of Clive’s ex-girlfriend and his son who are still back home on Saint X, and the promise he made to himself and his family that he would make a success of himself in America. Through Clive’s journey the novel highlights the immigrant experience, as well as the shadowy side of the tourism industry, and how the fictional island of Saint X is an amalgamation of all Caribbean islands where Americans go to escape. Saint X will of course never be the same again after Alison’s body was found at a hidden waterfall known to the locals as home to a supernatural legend.

As Emily delves deeper her own life takes a back-seat to Alison’s and Clive’s. She spends days listening to Alison’s diary which she made in the form of recordings on cassette tapes, and following Clive at night to his favorite restaurant and around his neighborhood. The streets of New York and the whitened sandy beaches of Saint X become entangled in her pursuit of a truth that seems to be leading her further away from the Alison she thought she knew.

What is obvious in Schaitkin’s narrative are the secrets that everyone is keeping. Emily has her own secrets, and while her sister clearly did as well, it is Clive’s secrets that prove the most intriguing of all. No one seems willing to share anything or divulge anything outside of their own spheres of reference, and it seems quite by accident that we begin to slowly stumble upon everyone’s truth.

Alexis Schaitkin’s Saint X is a novel about a beautiful island and the tragic death of a young girl on the cusp of a brilliant life. It is also a story of solitary lives intersecting, wounds that never seem to heal, and the stories we tell ourselves to keep from moving on and finding peace.

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