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Blue Ticket


Blue Ticket

It would be nice if dystopias like THE HANDMAID’S TALE or THE TESTAMENTS began to seem irrelevant or far-fetched. Alas, they continue to make us shudder. There’s been a flood of such titles lately, often having to do with women’s capacity to bear children: our power source and our chief vulnerability. RED CLOCKS, FUTURE HOME OF THE LIVING GOD and GATHER THE DAUGHTERS, to name just a few, followed in Margaret Atwood’s iconic footsteps, as did Sophie Mackintosh’s first novel, THE WATER CURE, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2018.

BLUE TICKET, this young British novelist’s second book, posits a society in which girls entering puberty receive a blue or white ticket. They can choose to have children or not; the color of the ticket, worn always in a locket around the neck (a sweetly feminine symbol converted into a heartless classification system), determines that. While blue-ticket women are sexually untrammeled and professionally active, only white-tickets get to be mothers (though fathers are the public face of parenthood, trundling around the city with large prams, receiving gifts from onlookers).

Calla, Mackintosh’s relentlessly introspective blue-ticket protagonist, works in a lab, and is content at first with a life of jogging and water aerobics; brief, sometimes dangerous hook-ups (her first, appallingly, when she was 14); Friday-night wine drinking with colleagues; and regular appointments in which she fences and/or flirts with the Kafkaesque Dr. A, a combination of beloved psychoanalyst and virtuoso manipulator. She is the very model of a modern single woman.

But then a “new and dark feeling” arises within Calla, “a kind of raging joy,” and at age 32, she removes the contraceptive device implanted in her. She picks up a likely man, R, and sets out to become pregnant. “Every cell in my body,” she says later, “was telling me it was the right thing to do.” In this society, of course, it is exactly the wrong thing to do. Calla wants what she is not supposed to have: not only a baby, but a husband and a nice, pretty home. “Always I had taken pride in being alone and now all this, the soggy desire to be boxed in a house with people I was bound to.”

"There is something shivery and enthralling about the simultaneous unfolding of two mysteries.... These twin 'reveals' dominate the book and give it pace and suspense."

When Dr. A finds out she’s pregnant, he urges Calla to have an abortion; failing that, she must run, pursued by functionaries known as “emissaries.” With the help of a sort of female underground railroad, she heads north for the border, planning to cross over into a neighboring country where the ticket system doesn’t exist. On the road, alone at first, she masquerades unsuccessfully as a white-ticket and narrowly escapes rape. She is steadied by the companionship of another pregnant woman, Marisol, with whom she shares not only food, shelter and sex but the bond of new pregnancy: “Our bodies felt both functional and transgressive. There is a person inside of you, I said to Marisol, and she replied solemnly, And inside of you.”

Calla and Marisol settle in an abandoned cabin. As the months pass, they are joined by three other women: two are pregnant, and the third is a white-ticket, Valerie, who has aborted her fetus and been punished for it. “All my life,” Valerie says to the other four, “I’ve been told I can only be complete if I grow something inside of me and bring it into the world. Whereas you are whole and perfect as you are.” Pregnancy, she declares, is like your body being hijacked: “The baby wants to survive at all costs, the baby doesn’t care about you. It’s disgusting. You think you have agency, but it’s all just biology.”

Calla’s vision of childbirth, in contrast, features “a tunnel of shining white light” that obliterates her former self and forges a new kind of love. “It would be like dying, but less pointless. Something to show for it.”

Toward the end of BLUE TICKET, there is a major plot twist involving Marisol, but story as such isn’t that important in this novel, nor is the building of an alternate reality. The gaps seem purposeful. Neither the country nor the city where Calla lives has a name; men are known by initials only and women by first names. We have no idea why women are controlled this way (underpopulation? overpopulation? religious zeal?); there is none of the sociological or theological detail found in, say, THE HANDMAID’S TALE.

Instead, I think Mackintosh is using her stark, unspecific dystopia to wrestle with the ambiguities of motherhood. Being childless doesn’t automatically mean you are free, nor parenthood that you are fulfilled. In any culture, including our own, where women are regarded as lesser beings, if we aren’t “good girls” or mothers, we are temptresses, whores, latter-day Eves.

In the world of this novel, for example, no one is supposed to criticize blue-ticket women’s sexual behavior, but Calla’s neighbor Iona is as judgmental as you get: She believes that she and Calla, who yearn for emotional constancy, are superior to those “who thought only of fu--ing.” As for the male characters, their rage at women seems very close to the surface. Initially polite, when challenged or refused they quickly become abusive (“worthless slut”; “blue b--ch”). Sound familiar?

Mackintosh gives her novel a strange staccato rhythm. We are permanently in Calla’s head, and her ruminations emerge in a succession of brief paragraphs. Her vocabulary is sophisticated, even poetic, yet the affect is flat, cerebral and detached, even when she is describing pain or passion. I guess I got a bit tired of her constant self-observation. Too much interiority can feel airless, however beautiful the language.

Yet I also found myself drawn into Calla’s journey. There is something shivery and enthralling about the simultaneous unfolding of two mysteries. First, there is her pregnancy --- which, as blue-ticket women are kept ignorant of the facts of life, feels baffling to Calla, and increasingly scary. Second, there is the gradual exposure of how this creepy society operates (in the latter respect, it reminded me a bit of Kazuo Ishiguro’s brilliant NEVER LET ME GO). These twin “reveals” dominate the book and give it pace and suspense.

The most touching scene comes toward the end. Calla, agonizingly in labor, breaks into a house where a woman and her baby live. She threatens them with a knife, desperate for information about what is happening to her body. The woman tells her the biological basics, pleading with Calla to spare her child at whatever cost. But she also, more surprisingly, articulates what she calls “the motherhood trouble”: the fear and obsession and sleeplessness and torment of being a new parent. Babies, she says to Calla, “are wholly dependent on you. They are terrifying, even I can admit that.”

Here is a message as relevant to our world as to Mackintosh’s invented one. I suspect it represents her own complicated view of mother love, as anguished as it is deep, and it seems to me both honest and eloquent.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on July 2, 2020

Blue Ticket
by Sophie Mackintosh

  • Publication Date: May 4, 2021
  • Genres: Dystopian, Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 1984898906
  • ISBN-13: 9781984898906