Women, Disappearing

This could be the title of many blog posts, actually, but today’s focus shall be on why young, white, dead women hold such a fascination for us. Countless novels have a storyline of a “beautiful, young girl (college-age is best, because even when dead, she must perform both the roles of a sexual object and a virginal family girl) disappearing” and everybody being very worried and a national manhunt ensuing.

This is also the exact storyline of Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin. College-age daughter and sister Alison (very beautiful) disappears during a (luxury) family holiday on the Caribbean island of Saint X. Two local (black) men are arrested but later released, and Alison’s younger (less beautiful) sister Claire becomes obsessed with her sister’s murder/disappearance/definitely death when she’s adult herself and makes a living as book editor in New York. So far, so classic.

The interesting subplot in Saint X are Schaitkin’s ongoing, subtle hints of why we are so obsessed with such stories. Women are killed left and right all the time, very often by their partners (it’s always the husband), but it’s the young and the beautiful who capture our collective attention. The more freaky and grotesque the death and the whiter and more privileged the victim, the more of a media frenzy is sure to surround it.

It’s sometimes almost as if we’d care more about our own narrative than whatever the victim’s life story actually was until her untimely death. For it must be a woman (would Twin Peaks have had quite the same allure had it been a dead Larry on the riverbank?), young (but not a child: the perfect age is between maybe 16 and 20 years), and definitely beautiful. And heterosexual, absolutely. Who cares about a fat, ugly lesbian? Hardly something to bring “nation in mourning”.

Schaitkin takes this thematic to brilliant levels without making it a satire (sightseeing tours for American tourists to revisit the locations of the fateful night on Saint X is maybe pushing it a bit). People around the US who had never met Alison dedicate their lives to solving her murder. TV-shows and obituaries so heavily edited to align with the only acceptable narrative that they make Alison barely recognisable to her own sister Claire. And then, eighteen years later, her obsession to find out who her sister really was.

Of course, I don’t have to read novels about the aftermaths of beautiful young women being killed. When I open any newspaper (especially any Anglo-American outlet), there’s frequently a headline. And the narration is frighteningly identical in most of such cases: she was beautiful, she had a handsome boyfriend (possibly a suspect), she was daddy’s girl (dad another possible suspect), a pillar of the community, a homecoming queen, a straight-A student, and beautiful, so beautiful – who could possibly take her life?

Also the photographs illustrating the news could almost be from the same family album: high-school graduation in cap and gown, gap-year backpacking and posing in front of a landmark in far and away country, a smiling selfie thrown in, and a loving family (if possible, pictured barbecuing): always a loving, heteronormative family, now devastated. (And obviously everybody is white, except maybe the suspect.)

It’s a fascinating psychological game of being presented an idealised version of a person, but wanting to go deeper to find out who the beautiful young woman really was. Dark secrets must be unearthed without any effort spared, and how it does feed the imagination! And so it’s the perfect material for entertainment indeed.

The whodunnit in Saint X becomes far less significant than the ripple effect Alison’s death has on people who were in the fringes of her short life. The novel also a clever commentary on class and race through both Alison and Claire, but also the main suspect Clive. The ending is somewhat anticlimactic, which I also find to underline the point: our imagination craves for something much more fantastical than very often is the case.

Warm recommendation.

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