Saint X is not actually a saint, but a fictional Caribbean resort island in Alexis Schaitkin’s debut novel. Part tragedy and cold case investigation, part coming of age story, this is a novel that defies easy characterisation as Schaitkin uses her scenario to explore deeper issues of identity, privilege, entitlement and belonging.
Saint X opens in 1995, eighteen year old Alison and her seven-year-old sister Claire are at the Indigo Bay resort with their family as part of their once a year getaway vacation from America, although a time spent mainly with a bunch of other Americans. Despite the sun, sand and freedom, tragedy is in the offing. Alison is sneaking out of her room at night, swearing Claire to secrecy. And on the morning they are to leave her body is found in a waterfall on a nearby island. Two local men, employees at the resort, who were seen with Alison at a local bar are arrested but the timeline does not support the theory that they killed Alison and the case remains unsolved.
The narrative then jumps forward to the present day. Claire has changed her name and her life and is working in New York for a publishing house, editing a long running crime fiction series. One day in a cab she notices the driver is Clive Richardson, one of the men originally accused of killing her sister. Her life then starts to spiral out of control as she seeks to get close to Clive while at the same time, obsessing over diary tapes that her sister made in the last few years of her life, all in an attempt to get to the truth of her sister’s death.
As with all of the best crime fiction, Schaitkin leans on the tropes of the genre to reveal deeper truths and tell a more complex story. The main narrative is split between the stories of Claire and Clive, but Schaitkin expands the world through short point of view chapters from a range of both important and secondary characters. This style is reminiscent of Laura Lippman’s The Lady in the Lake, which used a similar technique to range over the inhabitants of 1960s Baltimore. Among other things Schaitkin uses these many voices and the stories of Claire and Clive to explore the divide between the entitled American tourists who flood the Caribbean every winter and the local people who both live off and are held back by their reliance on the tourist dollar.
As with many crime novels, Saint X also deals with issues of identity. No one is quite who they say they are, or even who they think they are. Alison’s diary reveals a very different person to the one that Claire idolised as a child. Claire herself changes her identity to distance herself from the events on the island and then adopts another layer of subterfuge to get close to Clive. And Clive himself outcast from his community battles with his vision of himself as father and breadwinner.
Saint X uses particularly some true crime tropes but is not a classic crime novel, in that it drives relentlessly to a neat resolution. It has been described as a “slow burn” thriller. But while Schaitkin effectively builds some tension into the relationship between Claire and Clive, it turns out to not really be a thriller at all. Rather, it is a novel that uses a tragedy to explore and expose weak points in society and in the lives of individuals. And while the crime element is finally resolved, for the reader at least, it is in all of these other respects that Saint X really delivers.