Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin
It sounds like it’s going to be one of those sort-of literary mystery/thriller things–a girl disappears on a tropical island–but it isn’t really about what happened, in the way those books tend to be. It’s about how everyone reacts, months later, years later. And it’s about how things just kind of happen sometimes, even predictable things, when we really believed (perhaps out of privilege?) they wouldn’t.
Schaitkin names her island Saint X and populates it richly. It’s not meant to be a specific real island, but it exists alongside St. Thomas and Antigua and Martinique, and it especially reminds me of St. John. She’s been up front about her reasons for doing that, and naming it so, and I think it works here; it reflects the way Americans view the Caribbean.
Race and class take a predictably foregrounded role here–wealthy white resort guests interact with working-class island residents–but that’s not the heart of the book. It’s there, and it’s an important aspect, rendered with a decent amount of sensitivity (although there’s always the fact that it was, in the end, written by s white woman), but the true core of the novel (as I believe the true core of a literary novel ought to be) is about human nature on an even deeper level. Senseless things just happen sometimes, and they change countless lives, sometimes dramatically. The book is focused on the girl’s little sister, 8 or 9 at the time, already in some ways fragile and troubled, and the need she feels as an adult to learn precisely what happened (as if that’s going to fix it for her). It’s about the experience of seeing her idolized sister being, basically, a teenager, with contempt for their parents’ well-intentioned but condescending interactions with resort staff, because she’s just taken some kind of international culture class in her first semester at Princeton. Its the utter devastation of the life of a man who becomes a suspect in the disappearance, where we see how that one night changed everything forever. There’s the mother, coming to understand what letting go is and isn’t. And all of it has a feeling of truth to it.
It’s a first novel. It’s a very good one, in my view. But I think it’s a mistake to include, scattered throughout, brief sections from the points of view of various peripheral characters (the island’s chief of police; the college boy also staying at the resort who is briefly questioned; the otherwise uninvolved woman who finds the body; etc.) It feels like author-cheating, a cheap way to get some extra insight in about what even further effects these things might have, and the lives going on around them that are or are not changed, and I think she didn’t need to do that to communicate everything she needed to.