In 1995, on a nameless Caribbean island, an American family is on holiday. The Thomases are no better or worse than any of the other upper-middle-class white tourists who are also vacationing in sultry Indigo Bay, with its “everywhere weeping pink blooms and … brazen teal water.” But the night before they are supposed to go home, the older of the couple’s two daughters, 18-year-old Alison, is nowhere to be found. Within a couple of days, her body is found dead in a nearby cay.
I started reading “Saint X,” the debut novel by Alexis Schaitkin, believing I was about to get yet another tale of a beautiful young woman and her mysterious death. And I was in no way averse to that; there’s something mesmerizing about taking apart a person’s last days, about being presented with an ideal, and then figuring out the truth of who the victim really was. And the book begins by offering what most novels of this kind offer — a fetching, charismatic, somewhat volatile heroine. One who is pure enough that you feel the enormity of her loss, but slick enough to be interesting. We witness everything through the eyes of Claire, Alison’s younger sister and our protagonist, who, looking back on the episode in adulthood, recognizes this duality: “My sister was an innocent, blameless in her horrific fate. And it was all her fault.”
Claire, who was 7 when the tragedy occurred, becomes obsessed with understanding not just what happened to Alison, but who she was. But around 70 pages in, the details of this family drama start to take a back seat to the larger story Schaitkin is really trying to tell (and this is where “Saint X” flowers): about a single death that affects an entire community.
Any death of course creates aftershocks among those closest to the deceased, but we rarely spare a thought for those on the fringes. Schaitkin does, demonstrating in no more than a few pages each how Alison’s passing affects her various satellites: her teacher, roommate, a random man on holiday, an actor, the girlfriend of the suspect and so on. The connections are faint, the domino effect crystal clear.