In Alexis Schaitkin’s debut novel, Saint X, a possible murder becomes the lens through which everything from gentrification to the true crime industry to the dynamics of tourism in the Caribbean is interrogated.
The Thomas family are on their annual Caribbean vacation, this year on the island of Saint X, moving through a familiar routine of relaxation and lounging. But college-aged Alison Thomas is keen to have a true adventure and starts befriending Clive and Edwin, two members of the resort staff. At night, Alison sneaks away from the room she shares with her younger sister, Claire, to party with the men at local watering holes. On the morning the family is scheduled to leave, however, Alison is missing, and a few days later her body is found. Although Clive and Edwin are initially arrested, they are eventually cleared.
Alison’s death remains a mystery.
The trauma transforms the Thomas family, including Claire, who begins going by the name “Emily” in an effort to reinvent herself. Years later, Emily is living in New York City when she recognizes her taxi driver as Clive, one of the men who was the last to see her sister alive. She begins stalking in an attempt to get answers to her questions about Alison. But Alison’s death was transformative for Clive as well, changing the course of his life in ways that cost him his family, his friends and his home.
Alison’s death is the throughline for the novel, but this isn’t a book about a beautiful, white victim. Instead, Schaitkin zooms out—far out—to shift the novel’s focus to other areas. Emily lives in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of New York, insulated in some ways by her parents’ money despite her desire to make her own way, observant of the changes taking place around her while equally aware that she is part of that wave. Clive, who becomes the primary focus of the novel’s latter half, chronicles the changes brought by the tourism industry, the sudden manicuring and repackaging of his home’s geography and culture for white, wealthy visitors. Grief, privilege, poverty and racism all come under the microscope, as Alison’s death holds the narrative’s threads together.
Schaitkin shifts perspectives from omniscient narration to Emily to Clive, with brief interludes narrated by various minor characters—fellow vacationers, a boy Alison flirted with at the resort, a Saint X police officer, the person who found Alison’s body. The choice gives Schaitkin more avenues through which to explore the novel’s many themes, but it can be disorienting to still find Alison at the story’s center when it becomes clear this isn’t a traditional thriller. By the time the novel hits its stride, it becomes clear just how much of the setup is window dressing, which could make readers wish Schaitkin had zeroed in on her targets earlier.
At times, Saint X can feel like two novels stitched together: a thriller in the classic sense and a nuanced novel about the messy yet economically symbiotic relationship between the United States and the Caribbean. But the novel still boasts twists to keep readers guessing and deeper themes to keep readers actively engaged.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found on her website.