I had mixed feelings about this book, but I found the story and its characters really compelling. Saint X is a fictional island in the Caribbean, a place where affluent white families go to soak up the sun and drink all day long. The Thomas family arrives at the resort of Indigo Bay with their two daughters, 18-year-old Alison and 7-year-old Claire. On their last night, Alison goes missing and is later found dead. The story is told primarily through Claire’s eyes as she grows up, still mourning the sister she barely knew and wondering what happened to her.
What I really liked about this book was the slow exploration of the characters of Claire and Alison. The book also explores the lives of those who live and work on the island, including Clive, a man who is accused of Allison’s murder. This isn’t a mystery or a thriller in the usual sense, so readers looking for that will be disappointed. The book is much more an exploration of how we are shaped by money, privilege and race. I loved Schaitken’s attention to detail, from the significance of clothing, to the color scheme of the resort, to the vivid scenery of the island compared to New York City. The author also comments on the exploitation of murder as entertainment, from true crime shows to tours of crime sites. Of course, this book itself is capitalizing on well-publicized murders like that of Natalee Holloway.
This is one of those books where the characters are sympathetic but they also do terrible things. Claire resonated with me. She’s a shy, nervous girl who has to make a great effort to live what she sees as a normal life. When her sister disappears, she feels forgotten. As an adult, she’s incredibly isolated and I also found her self-centered. I found myself feeling the most for Clive’s character, and the insights of the author into the lives of immigrants living in the United States.
What also resonated with me was the perspective of a white family enjoying a lush island resort but also feeling uncomfortable about their whiteness and privilege. I love visiting islands for their beauty and calm, but I’m always aware of the significant poverty and race issues that come with my visiting as a tourist. I’m supporting their economy, but I’m also being waited on, and seeing only the surface beauty of a place. Like most of the white people in this book, I’m polite to the local people but that always feels inadequate. I want to seem respectful (and not racist) but as this book suggests, maybe that’s more for me than for anyone else. Maybe I can do better. Or maybe there’s no way to avoid that dynamic. This book doesn’t hold any answers, just raises the question.
The island’s visitors have little sense of its geography. If asked, most would be unable to sketch its basic shape. They cannot locate it on a map, cannot distinguish it from the other small landmasses that dot the sea between Florida and Venezuela. When a taxi brings them from the airport to their hotel, or from their hotel to a Caribbean fusion restaurant on Mayfair Road, or when they take a sunset cruise aboard the catamaran Faustina, or when a speedboat whisks them to Britannia Bay to tour the old sugar estate, they do not know if they are traveling north or south, east or west. The island is a lovely nowhere suspended in gin-clear water.Saint X by Alexis Schaitken
I wished, however, that this were a book written by someone who is actually Caribbean. As a white American, Schaitken writes much of this book from the perspective of a white American family. But she also spends a lot of time telling the story from the point of view of different characters from the island, who are black. I would be very interested to know how Caribbean readers view this book. I listened to this as an audiobook, and while I really enjoyed the different dialects, I would like to know they are authentic. At times the book has really thoughtful insights about race and affluence, but often those insights are raised but not explored, and I wonder if a reader of color would find them thoughtful or dismissive.
Schaitken narrates through many different characters, and at times I felt the structure of the book was a little confusing. For example, there are chapters we see through Clive’s point of view in the third person, and then later we hear from him in the first person. Some characters speak like they’re being interviewed. And sometimes Allison herself is narrating, though it’s not always clear if this is Claire simply imagining what her sister experienced (while some of Allison’s narration is told through her audio diary). It just felt at times like the author needed to structure her story a little more clearly, although this might have been an issue only with the audiobook. With so many characters and time changes, it probably would have felt more clear in print.
I also found some aspects of the conclusion troubling, though I won’t go into detail. All things considered, while I didn’t like everything about the story, I found this book stayed with me, and I continued to think about the characters and the issues they wrestled with. And as a debut novel, I thought it was ambitious and well-written.