Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Wednesday, November 6, 2019: Maximum Shelf: Saint X

Celadon Books: Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin

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Saint X

by Alexis Schaitkin

In this riveting debut, novelist Alexis Schaitkin delves into the ripple effects of a tragedy on two individuals from seemingly polar-opposite walks of life. Claire Thomas is seven when her 18-year-old sister, Alison, goes missing during a family trip to the island of Saint X in the Caribbean. After Alison's body is discovered, an investigation results in the arrest of two resort employees with whom she was last seen: Edwin Hastie and Clive Richardson. But with only circumstantial evidence, the men are soon released, and Alison's death goes unsolved.

For the Thomas family, this event carved a gaping hole in their souls, although they were left with no choice but to move on with their lives. Claire explains that, in the subsequent years, they "lived on the surface, skated figure eights over a frozen sea."

Twenty years after the tragic incident, Claire's and Clive's paths cross, tearing open old wounds that never properly healed. Thanks to the passage of time, Claire doesn’t recognize the former resort employee, when she steps into his taxi in New York City. But when she sees his license and name displayed on the Plexiglas partition of the cab, the frozen sea cracks, and she begins drowning in her personal obsession to learn the truth about who her sister was, and what happened that fateful night on Saint X.

Schaitkin vividly paints the emotional struggle Claire experiences after leaving the island. Her identity, her relationship with her parents, the expectations of friends are all defined by her sister's death--a sister she barely knew. And once Alison is gone, she becomes an ideal: "In my parents' version, Alison was buffed like a piece of sea glass, her edges and points worn away over time and yielding to a pleasing smoothness." But Claire knows Alison had rough edges, and as she grows closer to Clive, she becomes increasingly caught up in her determination to find the truth.

The author weaves Clive's story into Claire's. While the contrast in their lives is stark--Claire lives a privileged life, while Clive is lucky to scrape by--they are both haunted by the death of Alison Thomas. Clive loses his home and his family because of the fallout from the investigation. Daily he's reminded that he's miserable in New York City because of a confident teenage girl who caught his best friend's attention. The differing points of view remind readers that both are unreliable narrators; readers must parse for themselves what the truth is, if it actually can be found.

While considering the role of differing viewpoints, Claire ponders, "Stories lead us to the truth and they lead us astray, and how are we to know the difference?" Claire mulls this over as she puts together the stories she's researched in an effort to find the truth about her sister. To muddy the water a bit more, Schaitkin also includes short one- to two-page narratives from supporting cast members: the woman who found Alison's body, another guest at the resort, Alison's English teacher.

While Saint X on its surface presents a mystery, the focus is on the dynamics of human relationships--and the result is an engrossing tale about family, about privilege and about finding one's way in the labyrinth of life. --Jen Forbus

Celadon Books, $26.99, hardcover, 352p., 9781250219596, February 18, 2020

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Alexis Schaitkin: The Past They Can't Leave Behind

(photo: Nancy Borowick)

Alexis Schaitkin's short stories and essays have appeared in Ecotone, Southwest Review, the Southern Review, the New York Times and elsewhere. Her fiction has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. She received her MFA in fiction from the University of Virginia, where she was a Henry Hoyns Fellow. She lives in Williamstown, Mass., with her husband and son. Her debut novel, Saint X, will be published by Celadon in February 2020.

What was your first inspiration to write? How did you decide you wanted to pursue it as a career?

I started writing as a young child and never really stopped. My first inspirations were nature, the seasons, a sense of place. I was a pretty upbeat kid, but writing was a way for me to explore terrain that was tonally darker. I wrote ghost stories, stories about reincarnation, stories with a sense of haunting and menace. I really left that style behind for a good chunk of my writing life in college and graduate school, but I think there are traces of those childhood preoccupations in Saint X.

In terms of deciding to pursue writing as a career, it's funny. Certainly, if I look at my trajectory--a creative writing minor in college, an MFA--it seems I decided to pursue writing as a career pretty explicitly; yet I never thought about it that way. I never let myself believe that I would actually publish a book.

I spent three years writing another novel before Saint X that never came together, and then three more years writing Saint X, so on the one hand I was pursuing this pretty doggedly, but on the other, I just kind of kept going, kept my head down, and didn't let myself get my hopes up about what a career as a writer might look like. I guess I would say it was less that I decided to pursue writing as a career, and more a process of continuing to write, whatever else I was also doing professionally at the time.

You've previously published short fiction and essays. How did that compare to writing a novel?

The biggest differences for me were architectural: with a novel, you're building something sprawling and expansive, but it also has to have an internal logic--a feeling of ideas and people recurring, circling back, clicking into place. That was the hardest part to learn, how to make the story big but cohesive. I definitely had the sense, as I wrote the novel, that I was learning how to write a novel.

There are obviously echoes of the Natalee Holloway disappearance in Saint X. Why did that story grip you enough to use the events as the basis for your novel?

I came to the echoes of the Natalee Holloway story in a rather roundabout way. I had written a short story about a young woman who goes missing while traveling alone in Thailand. And I had written a story set at this fictional tropical resort, Indigo Bay. Saint X brought those stories together. Of course, I was aware from the beginning that the plot had clear resonances with the Natalee Holloway story. But I don't see it as being based on or a fictionalization of that case, and I made a conscious decision as I was writing Saint X not to research it. The one article I did read was an interview with some of Natalee's friends, about how her death continued to impact their lives years later. That's certainly a theme with which Saint X is deeply engaged.

Claire, the younger sister of the victim, becomes obsessed with discovering what really happened to her sister. How did you go about getting inside her head to authentically portray the psychological effects?

Obsession is an enduring fascination for me. That sense that we're all living our lives on this incredibly thin surface, below which are all the things with the potential to consume us and pull us under. I don't think of myself as an especially obsessive person but, then again, neither does Claire before one brief encounter sends her into a spiral. I just find obsession endlessly interesting to think about, and a rather natural or easy state of mind to imagine my way into.

Clive is dealing with very different psychological and emotional effects. Did you write the book in order, or write each character's perspective separately?

I wrote them separately. I did have notes and a clear idea of both characters' emotional and psychological trajectories before I started drafting either. But for the actual writing, they were separate. I wrote Clive's life story, from his childhood through his years in Brooklyn, in one long stretch. I knew it would ultimately get broken up and woven together with other sections, but for that first draft, I got it all down at once.

Why choose to tell the story this way instead of from one or the other's perspective?

The structure and points of view were something I wrestled with a lot. But ultimately, it's both of their stories. I love when a novel subverts my expectations, and certainly for the first 100 pages or so, this is Claire's story. But I always knew that I wanted Clive's story to grow as the novel progressed, for it to take over a bit at times. The mystery of Alison's death is ever-present, but I do think the novel leaves it behind for stretches, intentionally, to bring the reader into Clive's life.

Would you say that you yourself are more like Alison or Claire?

Claire. Not that I'm so much like her, but Alison is extremely different from me. Her boldness, her risk-taking behavior, her brash confidence, her dawning awareness of her sexuality as something that might make her vulnerable, but which can also be strategically deployed. My starting place with Alison was less a sense that I understood her, and more a desire to answer the question, "What must it feel like to be her?" Which, I suppose, is also the question Claire is struggling to answer throughout the novel.

Are you working on something new?

I'm in the early stages of writing my next novel. It's really different from Saint X, but it does share that same darkness of tone, that same sense of characters haunted by a past they can't leave behind. --Jen Forbus

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