Friday Night Book Club: Read an excerpt from Alexis Schaitkin’s atmospheric and hypnotic debut novel Saint X
More about the book!
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend!
Staying in this evening? Get comfortable with a glass of wine and this extract from Saint X, the stunning debut novel from Alexis Schaitkin.
Hailed as a ‘marvel of a book’ and ‘brilliant and unflinching’, Saint X is a haunting portrait of grief, obsession, and the bond between two sisters never truly given the chance to know one another.
‘Saint X is hypnotic, delivering acute social commentary on everything from class and race to familial bonds and community, and yet its weblike nature never confuses, or fails to captivate. Schaitkin’s characters have views you may not always agree with, but their voices are so intelligent and distinctive it feels not just easy, but necessary, to follow them. I devoured Saint X in a day.’ – Oyinkan Braithwaite, bestselling author of My Sister, The Serial Killer
About the book
Claire is only seven years old when her college-age sister Alison vanishes from the luxury resort on the Caribbean island of Saint X on the last night of her family’s vacation.
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. It’s national tabloid news, a lurid mystery that will go unsolved, but for Claire’s family there is only the sad return home to broken lives.
Years later, riding in a New York City taxicab, Claire recognises the name on the cabbie’s licence, Clive Richardson – her driver is one of the men originally suspected of murdering her sister. The fateful encounter sets her on an obsessive pursuit of the truth, not only what happened on the night of Alison’s death, but the no less elusive question of exactly who was this sister she was barely old enough to know: 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 uncover the truth, an unlikely intimacy develops between them, two people whose lives were forever marked by a tragedy.
Alexis Schaitkin’s Saint X is a flawlessly drawn and deeply moving story that hurtles to a devastating end.
Read the excerpt:
BEGIN WITH AN AERIAL VIEW. Slip beneath the clouds and there it is, that first glimpse of the archipelago—a moment, a vista, a spectacle of color so sudden and intense it delivers a feeling like plunging a cube of ice in warm water and watching it shatter: the azure sea, the emerald islands ringed with snow-white sand; perhaps, on this day, a crimson tanker at the edge of the tableau.
Come down a bit lower and the islands reveal their topographies, valleys and flatlands and the conic peaks of volcanoes, some of them still active. There is Mount Scenery on Saba, Mount Liamugia on Saint Kitts, Mount Pelée on Martinique, the Quill on Saint Eustatius, La Soufrière on Saint Lucia and also on Saint Vincent, La Grande Soufrière on Guadeloupe’s Basse-Terre, Soufrière Hills on Montserrat, and Grande Soufrière Hills on tiny Dominica, which is beset by no fewer than nine volcanoes. The volcanoes yield an uneasy sense of juxtaposition—the dailiness of island life abutting the looming threat of eruption. (On some islands, on some days, flakes of ash fall softly through the air, pale and fine, before settling on grassy hillsides and the eaves of rooftops.)
Roughly in the middle of the archipelago lies an island some forty kilometers long by twelve wide. It is a flat, buff, dusty place, its soil thin and arid, the terrain dotted with shallow salt ponds and the native vegetation consisting primarily of tropical scrub: sea grape, cacti, wild frangipani. (There is a volcano here, too, Devil Hill, though it is so small, and the magma rises to its surface so infrequently, that it is useless as both a threat and an attraction.) The island is home to eighteen thousand residents and receives some ninety thousand tourists annually. From above, it resembles a fist with a single long finger pointing west.
The north side of the island faces the Atlantic. Here, the coast is narrow and rocky, the water seasonally variable and sometimes rough. Nearly all of the residents live on this side, most of them in the tiny capital town, the Basin, where cinder-block schools, food marts, and churches mingle with faded colonial buildings in pastel hues: the governor-general’s petal-pink Georgian mansion; the mint-green national bank; Her Majesty’s Prison, eggshell-blue. (A prison next to a bank—a favorite local joke.) On this coast, the beaches’ names bespeak their shortcomings: Salty Cove. Rocky Shoal. Manchineel Bay. Little Beach.
On the south side of the island, the gentle waves of the Caribbean Sea lap against sand fine as powder. Here, resorts punctuate the coast. The Oasis, Salvation Point, the Grand Caribbee, and the island’s crown jewel, Indigo Bay, all of them festooned with bougainvillea, hibiscus, and flamboyant, beautiful deceptions meant to suggest that this island is a lush, fertile place.
Scattered in the sea around the island are a dozen or so uninhabited cays, the most notable of which are Carnival Cay, Tamarind Island, and Fitzjohn (famous, at least locally, as the home of the Fitzjohn lizard). The cays are popular spots for excursions—snorkeling, romantic picnics, guided expeditions through their limestone caverns. The closest of the cays to the main island is the ironically named Faraway Cay, which sits not five hundred meters off the coast at Indigo Bay and which, owing to its nacreous beach, its wild landscapes, and the pristine waterfall at its center, would be a popular destination like the other cays, were it not overrun by feral goats, which survive on sea purslane and prickly pear.
The island’s visitors have little sense of its geography. If asked, most would be unable to sketch its basic shape. They cannot locate it on a map, cannot distinguish it from the other small landmasses that dot the sea between Florida and Venezuela. When a taxi brings them from the airport to their hotel, or from their hotel to a Caribbean fusion restaurant on Mayfair Road, or when they take a sunset cruise aboard the catamaran Faustina, or disembark their cruise ship at Hibiscus Harbour, or when a speedboat whisks them to Britannia Bay to tour the old sugar estate, they do not know if they are traveling north or south, east or west. The island is a lovely nowhere suspended in gin-clear water.
When they return home, they quickly forget the names of things. They do not remember the name of the beach on which their resort was situated, or of the cay where they went for their snorkeling excursion. (The beach there was littered with sand dollars, as if they were entirely unprecious.) They forget the name of the restaurant they liked best, remembering only that it was some exotic flower. They even forget the name of the island itself.
* * *
ZOOM IN closer on Indigo Bay and the resort’s features come into view. There is the long drive lined with perfectly vertical palm trees, the marble lobby with its soaring domed roof, the open-air pavilion where breakfast is served until ten each morning, the spa, the swimming pool in the shape of a lima bean, the fitness and business centers (‘CENTRE,’ on the engraved placard outside of each; the American guests are charmed by this Briticism, which strikes them as quaint and earnest on this island so distant from England). There is the beach where lounge chairs are arranged in a parabola that follows the curve of the bay, the local woman set up on a milk crate beneath a sun-bleached blue umbrella at the beach’s edge, braiding young girls’ hair. The fragrance is tropic classic, frangipani and coconut sunscreen and the mild saline of equatorial ocean.
On the beach are families, the sand around their chairs littered with plastic shovels, swimmies, impossibly small aqua socks; honeymooners pressed closely together beneath cabanas; retirees reading fat thrillers in the shade. They have no notion of the events about to unfold here, on Saint X, in 1995.
The time is late morning. Look. A girl is walking down the sand. Her gait is idle, as if it is of no consequence to her when she arrives where she is going. As she walks, heads turn—young men, openly; older men, more subtly; older women, longingly. (They were eighteen once.) She wears a long, billowy tunic over her bikini, but she has a teenage knack for carrying it with a whiff of provocation. A raffia beach bag is slung casually over her shoulder. Apricot freckles crowd the milky skin of her face and arms. She wears a silver anklet with a charm in the shape of a star, and rubber thongs on her long, archless feet. Her russet hair, thick and sleek as a horse’s, is tossed into a bun of precise messiness with a yellow elastic band. This is Alison, never Ali.
‘Good morning, sleepyhead,’ her father says when she reaches her family’s lounge chairs.
‘Morning,’ she yawns.
‘You missed a cruise ship go by right out there. You wouldn’t believe how big that thing was,’ her mother says.
(Though the guests at Indigo Bay are apt to complain when these hulking ships lumber into the vista, they also derive a certain satisfaction from these moments, when the bad taste of others reaffirms their own quality—they have not chosen to spend their vacations in the vulgar opulence of a ship with all the beauty of an office park.)
‘Sounds riveting.’ Alison drags a chair out of the shade of an umbrella and into the sun. From her beach bag she removes a yellow Walkman. She lies down, puts on her headphones, and pulls her sunglasses over her eyes.
‘How about a family swim?’ her father says.
Alison does not respond. Not pretending she doesn’t hear him over whatever she’s listening to, her father decides, just ignoring him.
‘Maybe in a little while everyone will be more in the mood,’ her mother says with prodding cheerfulness.
‘Hey, Clairey,’ Alison says. ‘I’m going on a treasure hunt and I’m bringing a starfish.’
She is speaking to the little girl sitting in the sand between her mother’s and father’s chairs, who until this moment had been piling sand into small mounds with intense focus.
‘I’m going on a treasure hunt and I’m bringing a starfish and a dog,’ the little girl says.
She is as peculiar in appearance as her older sister is appealing. Her hair is nearly white, her skin extremely pale. Eyes gray, lips blanched. These features combine to create an impression that manages to be at once arresting and plain. This is Claire, age seven. Clairey, to her family.
‘I’m going on a treasure hunt and I’m bringing a starfish, a dog, and a piccolo.’
‘A piccolo,’ Claire whispers. Her eyes widen with wonder.
The father flags down one of the men who work on the beach. There are two of them, both dark-skinned, in white slacks and white polos with the resort insignia embroidered on the breast pocket in gold thread. The skinny one and the fat one, in most of the guests’ mental shorthand. The man who approaches the family now is the skinny one, Edwin.
When he reaches them, Alison sits up and smooths her hair.
‘How are you all doing this morning?’ he asks.
‘Excellent,’ the mother says with a bright display of enthusiasm.
‘First time to our island?’
‘Yes,’ the father confirms. ‘Just flew in last night.’
The family vacations at a different resort on a different island every winter, weeklong respites from their snowbound suburb that steel them for the remaining months of darkness and cold. They have seen palm trees bent to kiss the sand. They have seen water as pale as glaciers and walked on sand as soft as cream. They have watched the sun transform, at the end of the day, into a giant orange yolk that breaks and spills itself across the sea. They have seen the night sky overcome with fine blue stars.
‘Look at our island pulling out she most beautiful day for you.’ He gestures generally with his skinny arm at the sky, the sea. ‘What can I be getting you this morning?’
‘Two rum punches and two fruit punches,’ the father says.
Alison emits a small sigh.
The skinny one returns some time later. (Too long, the father thinks, as fathers all along this stretch of sand think; the skinny one is a chatterbox, and a dawdler.) He bears a tray of drinks garnished with maraschino cherries and hibiscus blossoms.
‘We have a volleyball match this afternoon,’ he says. ‘We hope you will join us.’
‘Oh, honey, you would love that!’ the mother says to Alison.
The girl turns to face her. Though she wears sunglasses, the mother has no doubt that behind them her daughter’s gaze is withering.
The skinny one claps his hands together. ‘Excellent! May we count you in, miss?’
The girl adjusts her sunglasses. ‘Maybe.’ (She has developed a talent lately for delivering even the most innocuous words as thinly veiled innuendo. The mother has noticed this.)
‘More of a sunbather, are we?’ the man says.
Alison’s face turns crimson.
The father reaches into his wallet and pulls a few singles from the thick stack he took out yesterday at the bank. (Was that really just yesterday? Already he can feel the island beginning to work its rejuvenating magic on him.)
‘Thank you, sir.’ The skinny one tucks the money in his pocket and continues down the beach.
‘Nice guy,’ the father says.
‘Friendly,’ the mother agrees.
‘Well?’ the father says, and raises his glass.
The mother smiles. Clairey stares intently at her cherry. Alison swirls her fruit punch with practiced boredom.
‘To paradise,’ the father says.
* * *
IN THE hot afternoon sun, the fat one makes his way down the beach, pausing at each cluster of chairs. ‘The volleyball match will begin in five minutes,’ he says softly. He nods uncomfortably, tugs at the collar of his shirt, and walks on. The guests watch as he passes. He is big, the kind of big that draws attention. This is Clive. Gogo, to those who know him.
‘You best sell my game hard, man! We still four players short!’ the skinny one shouts from the volleyball court, hands cupped around his mouth. ‘Volleyball of champions! Last call!’
People who were sleeping or reading shake their heads at his shouting and smile indulgently. They understand that the skinny one is an essential element of this place, granting the beach its energy, its sense of fun, its luscious, gummy vowels.
Alison takes off her headphones and stands. ‘Want to come watch me play, Clairey?’ She reaches her hand out to her sister.
As the sisters cross the sand to the volleyball court, young men rise from their chairs and stroll casually in their wake. They are in the mood for some volleyball after all.
* * *
THE SKINNY one counts off the players, one, two, one, two. Claire takes a seat on the sideline.
‘You’re my extra pair of eyes, little miss,’ he says to her with a grin. He tousles her hair and she stiffens at his touch.
Just before the game begins, Alison slips her tunic up over her head and drops it in the sand beside her sister. The eyes of the other players land on her, noticing while trying to appear as if they have not noticed the large conch-pink scar on her stomach. For a moment she stands perfectly still as they take in her secret spectacle. Then she snatches the ball from the sand and tosses it into the air.
* * *
IT IS not much of a game. A few high schoolers and college kids, a couple of young dads with some lingering fitness, a woman who ducks whenever the ball comes near her, a husband and wife in their mid-thirties—a slight paunch spilling over the waistband of the husband’s pink dolphin-print swim trunks, the wife’s immaculate body casting off the aura of frantic hours at the gym—and one genuinely skilled guy whose overinvestment in the game (unnecessarily aggressive spikes, the frequent utterance of the phrase ‘a little advice’ as he attempts to whip his team into shape) quickly begins to grate on everyone.
As the game progresses, the players converse about the usual things. It is established that two couples are from New York, one is from Boston, and another from Miami. The woman who ducks is from Minneapolis. A Chicagoan on his honeymoon has left his brand-new wife, whose langoustine last night must have been off, holed up in their room.
‘She made me leave,’ he adds quickly. ‘She said there was no point in both of us missing the day if I couldn’t be useful anyway.’ Having repeated his wife’s words, he furrows his brow; it occurs to him that he may have misunderstood her and failed one of the first tests of his marriage.
‘Welcome to the next forty years of your life,’ says the overinvested man. He and his wife have been at Indigo Bay for two days. Don’t get him wrong, it’s fine, but they prefer Malliouhana on Antigua, or was it Anguilla?, where they stayed last year. The couple from Miami has friends who swear by Malliouhana.
‘Are we the only ones who find the food here pretty subpar?’ the overinvested man asks.
The woman from Minneapolis finds the food delicious but outrageously overpriced.
‘It’s because they have to bring everything in on boats,’ says the man in the dolphin swim trunks.
‘That’s just what they say. It’s because we’re a captive audience,’ corrects his wife.
‘And the service charge is killer.’
‘When the bill comes, I don’t look. I just sign.’
‘Almost, honey!’ the wife of the man in the dolphin swim trunks says when he serves the ball into the net. The trunks embarrass him, but they were a gift from his wife, and she was so excited about them he didn’t want to offend her by returning them, though he suspects she was excited not because she thought these trunks would make him happy, but because they made her happy, because on some level she wants a husband she doesn’t have to take seriously. He noted this but said nothing, figuring it would be cruel and pointless to call her attention to the ugliness in intentions she believed to be pure. When they separate three years from now, he will become aware of how many things he noted silently, of how much time he spent smiling at her while rebuking her in his mind.
A discussion is had about the pros and cons of the various excursions offered by the resort. Somebody wonders whether the snorkeling trip to Carnival Cay is decent.
‘We went yesterday. You’ll see so many fish you’ll be sick of them,’ says a husband from New York.
Someone has heard that the scuba excursion, to the site where a ship called the Lady Ann was wrecked in a hurricane fifty years ago, is not to be missed. Somebody else spent the morning golfing and can report that the course is top-notch. The wife of the man in the dolphin swim trunks has decided against the tour of the old sugar estate and rum distillery. Another husband from New York highly recommends the romantic picnic on Tamarind Island. The beach is exquisite. He and his wife had it all to themselves. He does not mention the fake rose petals he kept finding on the beach, half buried in the sand, remnants of other people’s romantic picnic excursions on Tamarind Island, and how they have burrowed into his mind, souring his memory of an experience he knows was very nice.
The boys who followed Alison down the beach include a short, muscle-bound kid with a frayed braid of hemp around his neck; a boy who wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the Greek letters of his fraternity; and a tall blond boy who, when pressed, admits to attending Yale. There’s a girl, too, a communications major. For a few minutes they run through the people they know at each other’s schools, looking for connections. The ex-girlfriend of the boy with the hemp necklace is in Developmental Psych with the fraternity brother. The sleepaway camp bunkmate of the communications major is in orchestra with the blond boy from Yale. The blond boy plays the cello. He is going to Saint Petersburg on tour in March.
‘Small world,’ the blond boy says when he puts together that a teammate from his high school soccer team is in Alison’s dorm at Princeton.
‘In the sense that our worlds are small,’ she retorts.
He laughs. ‘Good point, Ali.’
‘Good point, Alison.’
The players serve and spike against a dichromatic backdrop of sand and sky. They clutch their knees and say, ‘Whew,’ after a particularly aerobic play. They watch Alison. She leaps and dives, flinging herself after the ball with abandon. Her body is lithe and athletic. Even when she’s still, an energy simmers about her. When the wife of the man in the dolphin swim trunks catches him staring, he pretends to be extremely absorbed in the view of the ocean.
From her spot in the sand, Claire watches and wonders whether the sluicing beauty of her sister’s movements will be hers, too, someday, when she grows up. She doubts it, but this doesn’t really make her sad. It is enough to bask in the warmth of her sister’s light.
When the game ends (defeat for the team of the overinvested man, who now declares the game to have been ‘all in good fun’), the blond boy approaches Alison. They talk a bit. The other boys eye him with annoyance and self-recrimination, then turn their attention to the communications major, reassessing. The blond boy touches Alison’s shoulder, then trots off down the sand. When he’s gone, she brings her hand to the spot he touched and brushes her fingertips against her own soft skin.
* * *
AS AFTERNOON slips into evening, the guests drift away from the beach. They spend the hours before dinner recovering from the day—the sun, the heat, the booze, beauty so vivid their eyes crave a rest from it. They shower. They check in with the office. (Their expertise is needed to resolve some particularly thorny issue, and they provide the solution with relief; or they are told to enjoy their vacation, things are chugging along just fine without them, and for the rest of the evening they are cranky and short-tempered.) They have sex in the fluffy white hotel beds. Afterward, they eat the mangoes from the welcome baskets, letting the creamy juice run down their hands. They investigate the small bottles in the minibars. They flip on televisions by force of habit, watch a few minutes of a news program from Saint Kitts, a Miami Vice rerun, a documentary about a reggae singer who is neither Bob Marley nor Jimmy Cliff. They sit on the balconies, smoke loose joints rolled with the mediocre grass they’ve managed to procure on the island, and watch the night begin: the sun go down, moths bloom from the darkness, the palms turn to shadowy windmills, the first faint stars pierce the sky.
The sisters lay side by side on Claire’s bed and let the air conditioner blitz their bodies. One day on the beach and already Alison has turned nut-brown. Her freckles, faint apricot this morning, are auburn sparks. Claire’s skin, meanwhile, is angry pink.
‘You poor thing,’ Alison says.
She fetches the bottle of aloe vera from the kit in the bathroom and squeezes some into her palm. She soothes her sister inch by inch. Claire closes her eyes and slips into the blind dream of her sister’s touch.
Alison has been away at college for four months. Sometimes at home Claire goes into her sister’s room and sits on her bed. The room looks as if Alison went out just a minute ago. On the desk there are messy piles of snapshots and, mixed in with the pens and pencils in a blue ceramic mug, a tube of sparkly strawberry lip gloss. (Once, she opened the tube, slicked some on, and inhaled her sister’s smell on her own lips. She has not dared to do this again.) There are band posters on the walls. The clothes her sister didn’t take to college are sloppily folded in the dresser. But the room no longer feels inhabited. Sometimes, when she closes her eyes, she cannot picture her sister’s face. She cannot hear her voice, and when this happens a wave of panic washes over her.
Now the hotel room they share is humid with Alison’s presence, and everything Claire has missed comes rushing back. Her sister’s savage nail biting. Her habit of stroking her scar through her clothes when she’s thinking. The way she dances a little, small private movements, when she moves around a room. Her sister is a secret whispered in her ear.