On the Caribbean island of Saint X, a wealthy family from upstate New York vacations: a father, a mother, and their two daughters, eighteen year old Alison and seven year old Claire. They are nice enough, if oblivious. The father asks the waiter for good local restaurants so he can sample a ‘real’ dish. They tip well, give friendly smiles, try to make awkward conversation. Claire, an awkward, gangly child, quietly builds sandcastles and hopes her sister will help her. Alison, meanwhile, sneaks off behind her parents’ backs to go party with the locals. On their last night on the island, she disappears. A few days later, her body is found on an uninhabited island a little way from the coast. Two men working on the resort are arrested and held briefly, but they are soon released. The trail runs cold.
It’s a story that’s eerily familiar from cases like Natalee Holloway: rich white girl meets nefarious end on one of the thousands of identical islands in the Caribbean. What makes Saint X stand out is the way it traces the perspectives from all parties involved. We see the children through the parents’ eyes, sweet and innocent and perfect; an image that does not at all align with how Alison sees herself. We also see the aftermath. Years later, Claire, now a professional in New York, gets into a taxi with Clive, one of the two men arrested after Alison’s death. She finds a way to befriend him and hopes she can trick him into telling her what really happened on the night Alison disappeared, but the truth is never that easy.
Saint X is not so much a thriller – if you’re looking for a fast-paced whodunnit, look elsewhere. Instead, it presents a character study from the perspectives of everyone involved. We see how Clive and his friend Edwin grow up on the island, what it’s like to work on the resort for people who only think they care about the lives of the locals so they can assuage their own guilt, but also the other guests, who alternately see Alison as perfectly sweet and stuck-up; and through her own eyes. Alison is beautiful and intelligent, but also an adolescent. She sees no irony in rolling her eyes at her dad’s shallow attempt at authenticity while going out with the locals herself in pursuit of the very same thing. She’s vaguely aware of the risk she’s taking, but the thrill of feeling special wins out; in her head she’s already formulating the casual tone with which she’ll tell her roommate at college what she’s been up to. She’s so convinced that she’s special that when she discovers she’s just the flavour of the week for the locals who take her out, she quickly brushes off the idea. She’s at once aware of her privilege and stunningly ignorant about it.
Without wanting to give too much away, the conclusion of this novel may not be for everyone. There’s not a clean wrap-up with a bow on top. I really enjoyed the different perspectives this novel offers; some are presented extensively, like Clive and Claire’s; others not so much, like those of other guests at the resort. And as someone who has been to a resort like this, to me it felt absolutely true; there’s no simple way to deal with white guilt and you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, because that privilege does not go away quite so simply, you don’t know what it’s like to live there and any endeavours to find out will rightfully be regarded by the natives as poverty porn. Alison is convincingly insufferable, a girl like thousands who is convinced that she’s one in a million. The only thing I didn’t like was Claire; it’s a little hard to believe that she, a wealthy white girl, can unobtrusively follow around a man in a largely non-white neighbourhood, certainly not months on end. Alison is meant to be insufferable; Claire is supposed to be vaguely likeable but her personality never really emerges.
But those are minor quibbles. Ultimately, Saint X is a rich and vibrant study about a sort of post-postcolonialism: the things that go wrong when an outsider tries to mingle with a population that wants nothing to do with them. It’s a viscous mix of guilt, resentment, privilege and disinterest, and Schaitkin manages to describe that with a sort of wry bemusement. There’s no easy solution to the problem. Much like Alison’s presence on the island, it lingers even if people stop talking about it.