Reviewed by Katie McIvor
What if you weren’t allowed to have children? What if the choice, even the ability, to get pregnant was forcibly taken away from you at the age of fourteen? Would you feel oppressed, or relieved?
This is the scenario Sophie Mackintosh constructs in her second novel, Blue Ticket. The narrator, Calla, lives in a world where girls – but not boys – are assigned a kind of lottery ticket on the day they hit puberty: white for a life rearing children in the countryside, blue for an IUD and a job in the city. Blue-ticket girls must undertake a gruelling, dangerous journey on foot to reach the city. White-ticket girls are protected from this journey, but then essentially forced into having children (we meet one white-ticket woman who has been punished for aborting her child).
With her blue ticket, Calla has the freedom to drink, party and sleep around, and she spends her twenties making the most of this lifestyle. But she also faces a damaging stigma, which she comes to feel keenly as she heads into her thirties: she fears that there is something wrong with her, that she is innately the wrong type of person to be a mother, a judgement which her free-and-easy existence seems to confirm.
Despite this, Calla is consumed by a burning desire to have a baby. Her desperation manifests in small, heart-wrenching acts, such as stuffing a sock with flour so that it feels like a baby’s leg. This “dark feeling”, as she describes it, leads her to rip out her IUD, in a particularly eye-watering scene. She takes advantage of her casual partner, R, to become pregnant without his knowledge. Her therapist, Doctor A, soon figures out what she’s done. Instead of being arrested straight away, Calla is given a tent and a 12-hour head start. She goes on the run, meeting other women along the way who, like her, have rebelled against the system. She faces sexual violence at every turn in her quest to cross the border and give birth in the safety of another country.
The novel combines two common Mackintosh themes: rites of passage into adulthood, and life on the run, both of which feature in her earlier short stories. Blue Ticket is more fast-paced than her debut novel, The Water Cure, but retains the dreamy, trance-like prose which is capable of great beauty and sickening violence, sometimes in the same sentence. The body is a major point of focus and the subject of gorgeous, disturbing imagery: “My brain floated out like a balloon”; “Pain… opened me up at the ribs, the pelvis, like I was being disarticulated on a butcher’s block”.
Poetic writing aside, this novel left me with some questions. We’re never given much of an explanation for why this society is the way it is. Women’s reproduction is fiercely policed, but men seem free to do as they please, which mostly appears to be sleeping around with blue-ticket women until such time as they feel ready to settle down and start a family. Men versus women was also a theme in The Water Cure, the story of three sisters who live on an isolated island, protected by their parents from an outside world where men have somehow become physically toxic. The lack of world-building works well in The Water Cure, where the reader shares the sisters’ ignorance and confusion about the world beyond their boundaries. Here, it doesn’t quite achieve the same effect. Calla is an active participant in her society and seems to accept its rules without much reflection. What is the purpose of the ticket system? Who is supposed to benefit from it? Why force it on women but not men? (Calla spends most of the novel tormented by the idea that she lacks some personal quality essential to motherhood, but doesn’t apply the same logic to men and fatherhood.) If this society exerts such close control over women’s fertility, why not over other areas of their lives? What’s the purpose of the dangerous teenage journey into the city? Why the 12-hour head start after Calla has broken the rules? For fans of sci-fi and fantasy, a little more world-building might have gone a long way here.
That said, I enjoyed Blue Ticket enormously. The writing is hypnotic, the protagonist is skilfully painted, and her quest has an obvious relevance to many issues faced by women today. If you’re up for some intense feminist horror framed in beautiful, delicate prose, I can definitely recommend it!
Blue Ticket can be found on Amazon and other book retailers.
Follow Katie on Twitter at @_McKatie_