In the movie in my mind, Alexis Schaitkin’s “Saint X” begins with a one-track shot of a group of Caribbean islands taken from an aerial drone. Slowly, the camera descends lower and lower so you get a glimpse of what it might look like from the window seat of an airplane or helicopter as it flies over churches and restaurants and beaches and resorts.
You can see this movie very vividly because Schaitkin writes like a screenplay writer, director and film editor, painting a portrait of every frame, shot by shot: “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 ….”
See what I mean.
You have no trouble imagining Schaitkin’s debut novel as a movie or television show (the kind you binge in one sitting, of course); its film adaption may even win awards, attract a cult following or inspire ballads.
After all, shows like David Lynch and Mark Frost’s “Twin Peaks” and Rob Thomas’ “Veronica Mars” and Brian Yorkey’s “13 Reasons Why” certainly did.
Schaitkin, who may have been inspired by the “Twin Peaks” formula or the 2005 disappearance of teenager Natalee Holloway, creates her own version of “Laura Palmer.” In the case of “Saint X,” this is a beautiful and complicated 18-year-old Princeton student named Alison Thomas (never Ali). Alison’s dead before the end of the first chapter. Clive “Gogo” Richardson and Edwin Hastie, the two men last seen with Alison, are never held responsible for Alison’s death. And the questions of who was Alison Thomas, who killed her and how did she die propel the rest of the novel.
But if you think this book is about Alison Thomas, you’re not quite wrong. But you’re not quite right either. Yes, “Saint X” is about the tragic death of an American teenager on a family vacation on a fictional Caribbean island, but this thriller/noir is mostly about Claire “Clairey” Emily Thomas — Alison Thomas’ kid sister — who grew up in the shadow of Alison’s death.
By the time the second chapter picks up, Clairey has surpassed the age of her perfect older sister, ditched her childhood nickname and lives a life her sister never got to. Alison becomes an almost forgotten memory to even those who knew her. But an unexpected encounter with Clive — one of the last humans to vividly remember Alison’s alive (because her death changed the course of his life just as much as it changed Claire’s) — in a New York City cab brings Claire closer to the answers she’s been wondering about for the majority of her life: Did Clive kill Alison?
“Saint X” is a powerful debut worth obsessing over.