Alexis Schaitkin unspools a story of that 18-year-old we all know. The one with buckets of confidence and virtually no experience. Who wants to be thought well of, while never giving their parents the time of day. Who rolls her eyes, shows off her body, and keeps oodles of secrets.
In Saint X, Schaitkin’s debut novel, that young woman is Alison Thomas. Alison, not Ali. And Alison “spelled right.” She and her comfortably wealthy family are vacationing on a small Caribbean island during winter break. Her mom and dad always pick a warm spot to take Alison and her awkward seven year old sister, Claire, affectionately known as Clairey. On this trip, Alison is especially feeling her independence after a semester at college. She flirts with all the guys, and sneaks out to dance, drink, and smoke weed with locals.
Then the unthinkable happens. Her parents can’t find her on the last morning of the trip. It’s no spoiler to say Alison’s body is found several days later in a secluded spot. While part of the story is finding out how Alison died, the majority is discovering how Claire experienced the event. And what happens almost two decades later when Claire runs into one of the Saint X locals suspected of involvement in Alison’s death.
Schaitkin alternates between whodunit, love letter to Caribbean islands, and character study in Saint X, using a combination of Claire’s perspective, a third-person narrative, and snippets from other players in the mystery. She spins a complex tale, with lush descriptions of her locations.
I cared about and empathized with Claire’s emotions about losing her sister. Even many years later, her grief and confusion about events is palpable. I could see my own experiences in her choices to alternately ignore and obsess over Alison’s death. In this way the character study aspect of Saint X truly touched me.
But here’s the thing. There are elements in the mystery that fell flat and seemed extraneous for me. For example, Schaitkin gives several minor characters short, first-person chapters. They’re just weak attempts at red herrings. I didn’t necessarily care about how these people experienced their visit to the island, or another part of their life. It didn’t seem relevant to moving the story forward.
Thankfully, those sections are short and the novel quickly returns to its main protagonists. Schaitkin also works hard to get inside the head of her accused local, a man who’s never comfortable inside his own skin. He’s a more intriguing enigma than Claire, frankly. On the other hand, her use of island patois is inconsistent and distracting.
There’s plenty of grit and grime in the possible resolutions Schaitkin floats to the mystery of Alison Thomas. We know they’re based in the sad reality of actual people who lose their lives in popular vacation spots. In this case, I wish the resolution had been more satisfying. Alas, that’s also typical in these circumstances.
All of these reservations notwithstanding, I hope you’ll give Saint X a go. It publishes in Winter 2020, just when Northern Hemisphere folks are anxious for visions of blue water and warm, white sand. And a little mystery.
Pair with A Nearly Normal Family, for more family dynamics mixed with mystery.
My thanks to Celadon Books, Macmillan, and the author for the opportunity to read an advanced readers’ copy in exchange for this honest review.