Claire is only seven years old when her college-age sister, Alison, disappears on the last night of their family vacation at a resort on the Caribbean island of Saint X. Several days later, Alison’s body is found in a remote spot on a nearby cay, and two local men – employees at the resort – are arrested. But the evidence is slim, the timeline against it, and the men are soon released. The story turns into national tabloid news, a lurid mystery that will go unsolved. For Claire and her parents, there is only the return home to broken lives.
Years later, Claire is living and working in New York City when a brief but fateful encounter brings her together with Clive Richardson, one of the men originally suspected of murdering her sister. It is a moment that sets Claire on an obsessive pursuit of the truth – not only to find out what happened the night of Alison’s death but also to answer the elusive question: Who exactly was her sister? At seven, Claire had been barely old enough to know her: a beautiful, changeable, provocative girl of eighteen at a turbulent moment of identity formation.
As Claire doggedly shadows Clive, hoping to gain his trust, waiting for the slip that will reveal the truth, an unlikely attachment develops between them, two people whose lives were forever marked by the same tragedy.
Saint X is the debut novel of American author Alexis Schaitkin. Despite this being her first long-form work, she weaves an intricate story like a seasoned pro. The story opens in 1995, setting up the murder of Alison Thomas on the tropical island of Saint X in the Carribean.
Alison’s death is left as a mystery before the story re-starts 20 years later on the island of Manhattan. It is there we are reintroduced to Alison’s younger sister, only seven at the time of the fateful Saint X vacation. Claire, who now goes by Emily, has moved forward with her life and finds herself as a drastically different person than her sister ever knew. She is happy and successful, living her best life until one fateful day when she steps into the cab of a man named Clive Richardson. Although she does not recognize him immediately, she is soon blindsided by the realization that this seemingly innocuous cabby is the same man who was once the prime suspect in Alison’s death. This sends Emily spiraling down a path where, for the first time in her adult life, she is forced to confront the mystery of what happened to her sister.
The way the tale unravels from there kept me hooked. Although early in her career, Schaitkin is a master at the craft of storytelling. We are treated to two very different perspectives: Emily and Clive. The novel primarily stays in the present as Emily finds herself obsessed with finding out the truth about her sister while Clive remains held captive by his secrets only a few miles away. Both characters are haunted by the fateful night that led to the death of young Alison, and twenty years later both are trying to find the way to live with what they know – and don’t know.
What I really enjoyed about the story was that we didn’t only hear from these two characters. Throughout the novel we take quick detours to the past, both on Saint X and elsewhere, to learn more about the characters and the mysteries that surround them. We are also treated to brief interludes from other characters, some who tell us about Alison, some who tell us about the case, and some who teach us more about our other main characters. These come from minor characters who otherwise might be more or less inconsequential to the plot, but nevertheless provide us with important insight that might lead to the truth of what happened.
Overall, Saint X is captivating and gorgeously written. The author has a knack for description that had me seeing every detail as plain as day. And I found that the further into the story I was, the more difficult it was for me to take my eyes off the page. It’s a slow burn of a novel to be sure, leading to a deep investment in our characters, their secrets, and their pain. While it looks like a mystery novel on the surface, Saint X is so much more than that. It’s a story of danger, obsession, class, race, and the bonds that hold us together that will keep you up well into the night, desperate to see how it all ends.
Hope you’re all staying safe and healthy this week! x