My name is Calla and I wanted to choose.
In a world where a key element of a woman’s fate is decided by a crude, ticketed lottery system, Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh is the story of one woman’s rebellion against this imposed destiny, compelled by a dark and powerful driving force within her.
In the unspecified country where our narrator Calla lives, at the time of a girl’s first bleed, they come forward in an uncomfortably formal and sterile ritual to pull a ticket that will tell them which direction their life will take: a white ticket means they can (and are expected to) have children, while blue means they cannot, a restriction which is enforced by an imposed procedure. However, Calla cannot quench the belief that the ticketing system was wrong, and that the wrong life has been handed to her, so she takes matters into her own hands to reclaim the life she believes is hers.
While there are, very loosely, some echoes of dystopian novels centred on the female experience, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, what I found intriguing about this story was how the girls are given their ticket and then sent forth into unknown territories to literally fend for themselves and build this imposed life independently. That having been said, there is always an uneasy sense of a ‘Big Brother’ type of presence watching via the people and environment around them, and the looming ‘emissaries’ who are dispatched when the women are out of line. There are also elements of crowd behaviour that echo dystopian classics; in several scenes, Calla finds herself in groups where dark wine is almost forced on her, echoing the soma of Brave New World. The world around Calla is depicted in a still, cold, sterile, mechanical way, occasionally punctured by moments of muted violence and aggression, adding to the threatening and unsettling atmosphere built up as the novel progresses.
Calla is a complex character, embodying a trauma carried forward from childhood that manifests itself in self-destructive behaviour; a childhood where she knew a destiny chosen for her was awaiting rigidly at her threshold. In this clinical, dystopian and patriarchal world, she is a character who is at times detached and mechanical herself, at times pulsating with dark and violent desires and urges. The writing is at times extremely visceral, almost primal, highlighting the centrality of the body and physical experience in this novel, but also how Calla is driven by instinct and some deep and primitive, rather than experiential, urge within her; as a blue ticket woman, she is completely innocent when it comes to the physical experiences and changes that are part and parcel of a white ticket life.
While there are some tender moments of solidarity with the women she meets on her journey, the ultimate feeling is that this is a world where the women like Calla, who have chosen to take charge of their own destinies, have been left no choice but to adopt a policy of ‘each woman for herself’. These are women traumatised by the choice taken from them, and the subsequent choices they have made to survive. Most of the men in this story mainly remain very sketchily conjured; serving as embodiments of the worst aspects of the men in this patriarchal society: weak, fickle and duplicitous. Only the somewhat ambiguous Doctor A is developed to an extent, exploring his wavering relationship with Calla; at times sharply reprimanding her, at times showing more compassion.
The novel unfolds in short, spaced-out paragraphs, as if dredging up memories in morsels from a difficult time in life; the choppy paragraphs adding to the unsettling, disjointed and often dreamlike atmosphere of the novel. The key theme explored in this novel is the timely issue of free will for women when it comes to motherhood and autonomy over their own bodies; however, the novel also explores the idea of motherhood itself, in particular the restrictions versus the freedoms associated with it, and whether being a mother and having a life beyond that need to be mutually exclusive. This is a story which is pulsing with trauma, violence, desire, rage and grief; the all-consuming emotions that can bubble under the surface, driving us forward. I found this to be a gripping and thought-provoking read, and will definitely be looking to read more by Sophie Mackintosh.
Book 5 reviewed as part of the #20BooksOfSummer22 reading challenge hosted by Cathy at 746books.com.
Blue Ticket was first published by Hamish Hamilton in 2020, and Penguin in 2021.