Apparently Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin appeared on several ‘books to look out for in 2020’ type listings prior to its release last month.
I’ve mentioned before I never read other reviews before I’ve written my own and rarely (even after that) check out feedback on Goodreads (or similar).
In this case however—on closing the last page—I did mark it off as ‘read’ on Goodreads and scrolled down to see what others were saying. Because I was, and still am, kinda torn.
by Alexis Schaitkin
Published by Macmillan AU, Picador
Genres: Psychological Thriller
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.
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.
Thankfully I wasn’t alone in my confusion. According to reviews this book seems to have readers at both ends of the satisfaction spectrum. There’s a few in between, but predominantly readers either feel like Schaitkin’s narrative style is ingenious or annoying; and that the plot itself is clever or lacks closure.
At the moment I’m the mama bear in this scenario and somewhere between the hating-on-it papa bear; and the this-is-gold baby bear.
The narration is certainly different. My scribbled note on commencing says ‘David Attenborough’. Because the first part of the book is written from the point of view of someone we don’t see or meet. Some purveyor of all that is before them. They speak of the ‘fathers’ and ‘mothers’ as if species to be examined and only our two sisters (Alison and Claire) and two of the staff (Edwin and Gogo / Clive) get named.
After Alison’s death, we move to Claire’s head as the years pass. She eventually reinvents herself and it’s then she comes across Clive and becomes increasingly obsessed with her sister’s death and his possible role in it. The quirks of her childhood return and though Schaitkin never names her habits or coping mechanisms Claire (now Emily) falls deeper in the chasm of the past.
I agree with many other reviewers that the story sags here a little. I suspect Schaitkin is attempting to build suspense. Claire listens to diary-like recordings made by her sister decades earlier, realising she didn’t know her as well as she thought. We’re privy to Alison’s discomfort with her privileged life and fact she’s seeking something…. ‘more’. With the benefit of hindsight I wonder if (or how quickly) that would have dissipated or been channeled more appropriately – had she lived.
Schaitkin also ropes-in Clive as a narrator and we learn about his early life and his move to New York from Saint X.
Interspersed across chapters are excerpts of sorts from those whose lives even-vaguely touched Alison’s. I expected they’d come to have some meaning, but it wasn’t the case for me and—if anything—distracted me from the unfolding plot.
Our omniscient narrator returns a few times, though I was a little unsure at one point if it Claire was guessing what Alison was thinking and feeling on Saint X, or the all-seeing / all-knowing David Attenborough again steering us in the right direction.
We (along with Claire) eventually learn more, but whether that offers closure or not is probably very subjective.
Many reviewers on Goodreads commented this would be an excellent bookclub book and that’s certainly the case. One of the reasons I went to Goodreads is because I wanted to talk about how I’d perceived certain things; whether or not the narrative worked for me; and if I got the answers I wanted.
There’s no doubt Schaitkin has a great talent. Her writing is magic. Very descriptive, very visual. I can’t say for sure that she nailed the Caribbean vernacular but it felt authentic to this Aussie reader on the other side of the world.
There are obviously deeper messages here about race and class, about how we accept and react to those around us, and how we deal with loss and death.
I’d certainly recommend this debut novel. You might love it or hate it, but it’ll definitely invoke something. (And as I said, it would be a most excellent bookclub choice!)
Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin was published in Australia by Pan Macmillan and is now available.
* I’m ultimately giving it 4 stars because I think it’s clever. But it could have been less or more.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.