“Saint X,” Alexis Schaitkin’s atmospheric new novel, is ostensibly about a young American girl who goes missing while on a family vacation in the Caribbean. But it is more than that. The book also unpacks timely social and cultural issues - about grief, truth, white privilege and our murder-as-entertainment culture.
The fictional tale of 18-year-old Alison Thomas brings to mind that of Colorado teen Natalee Holloway, who disappeared in 2005 while on a graduation trip to Aruba. Alison vanishes while on the fictional island of Saint X in 1995. Schaitkin describes the vacation spot as a “lovely nowhere,” until Alison’s death exposes its ugliness.
On the night Alison disappears, witnesses report seeing her drinking at a local bar with island residents Clive Richardson and Edwin Hastie. The trio are seen leaving the bar together, and the next day the teen’s parents report her missing. Unlike Holloway, whose body has never been found, Alison’s is soon discovered.
The two young men (who are both of color) are immediately under suspicion, but authorities eventually claim there’s no evidence the men were involved. That doesn’t sit well with Alison’s parents, who remain convinced that Edwin and Clive know what happened to their daughter and that police are covering it up. The media immediately descends. As Alison’s sister, Claire, later recalls, Allison’s story is reminiscent of that of Nancy Kerrigan and JonBenét Ramsey: “It seemed the national appetite craved - demanded, even - a dramatic story about an American beauty.”
Schaitkin proposes many what-if scenarios. If Alison were not white, would the media have so aggressively glommed on to her story? If Edwin and Clive were white, like the American college boys Alison also partied with on Saint X, would they have been considered the primary suspects? The effect of race pervades this story - white privilege is examined through the wealthy tourists lolling on island beaches while people of color satisfy their thirst for tropical drinks and a need to feel special. You can feel the wait staff cringe as the tourists strive to show how egalitarian they are.
All these weighty issues serve to buoy this novel rather than weigh it down. We’re invited to meditate on pressing social problems even as we enjoy the intriguing drama surrounding Alison’s short life.
The book also shows the damage done to Alison’s family, friends and acquaintances. In a scene that would fit as comfortably in a horror novel as it does a mystery, Claire, who was 7 when Alison died, peeks into her sister’s preserved bedroom and finds her mother “sitting at Alison’s desk, cupping something in her hands. It was a nest of Alison’s hair, pulled from her yellow brush.”
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Eventually, the news vans stop parking outside the Thomas’s home, but the theories about what happened to Alison live on through true-crime documentaries, “Dateline,” dedicated websites and subreddit message boards. Claire wonders: “What is the appeal of such stories? You know the kind I’m talking about. All the pretty dead white girls. The one backpacking in Eastern Europe and the one at the full moon festival in Bali and the blossom-cheeked blonde in Aruba.”
Nearly two decades after Alison’s death, Claire, who now goes by her middle name, Emily, is working at a Manhattan publishing house. It’s a dream job at which she excels until the day she hails a cab and realizes the driver is Clive. Here she sees her opportunity to find out what really happened to Alison. All at once her carefully curated life spins out of control. Emily befriends Clive without revealing her identity, and then, inevitably, these two people, victims in their own right, have the showdown Schaitkin has us craving. What happens won’t satisfy all readers, but through Emily we see that truth doesn’t always yield resolution.