BOOK REVIEW: Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin

Saint X book cover

4/5 stars

Just as I was entering middle school, America became enraptured with the story of Natalee Holloway, an Alabama teenager who disappeared after a night of partying on a graduation trip to Aruba. Just starting to get lectures from teachers about the dangers of drugs and drinking, the Holloway case was reliable ammunition–if something horrible happened to this girl while she was partying, it could happen to you. The actual human details of the case have largely been lost in the shuffle of Lifetime movies and daytime cable chatter and discourse about missing white woman syndrome, but like many, the case continues to intrigue me. It’s easy to see the case’s influence on the plot of Saint X–the debut novel by Alexis Schiatkin exploring the aftermath of a tourist’s disappearence and death.

Saint X is a fictional Caribbean island, but the details are realistic and clearly well-researched, following the story of Alison Thomas, a Princeton student who disappeared while on vacation with her family and was later found dead on another part of the island. Her younger sister, Claire, is only seven at the time, and her family struggles with the aftermath and frustration of not having clear answers of what happened.

Years later, Claire steps into a cab and realises her driver is Clive Richardson, a resort employee who was implicated in the death but had all charges dropped. What follows is a long unspooling of the truth, with a variety of perspectives–Claire’s, Clive’s, other Saint X residents, and Alison herself. With Claire losing her sister at such a young age, much of her narrative revolves around trying to discover who her sister was behind the memorials and rose-tinted glasses of those who knew her.

The writing is poetic and hypnotic, capturing the warped reality that can consume you on vacation. Schiatkin’s sense of place is strong, from Claire’s wandering around New York to the back alleys of Saint X, where the locals live their lives outside of the tourist-industrial complex. Saint X tackles the particular relationship of Americans to the Caribbean, with a paradise on your doorstep and the legacy of European colonialism along with it–I loved the asides and comments throughout the narrative about resort guests asking where they could find “authentic” food, mimicking Jamaican accents when they’re not staying there, and living their lives with margarita-soaked abandon until it’s time to fly back home.

Schiatkin clearly wanted to tackle the racism that tinges the case, with an exploration of the background of the suspects Clive and Edwin. She clearly did a lot of research into Afro-Caribbean culture, but I found some of these sections a little unnerving as she writes the characters’ internal narration in a Creole patois. I have mixed feelings about this and am not sure if I’m really in a position to comment on the use of this at all, but it was notable.

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