Sophie Mackintosh’s second novel, Blue Ticket, one of my most anticipated books of 2020, is billed as a feminist dystopia where adolescent girls are assigned either a blue or white ticket once they get their first period. ‘White tickets’ are required to seek out a solid heterosexual relationship and give birth to children, whereas ‘blue tickets’ are released on a path of uncertain freedoms, assigned to jobs that are deemed to suit them but able to control their personal lives – as long as they never get pregnant. Predictably enough, our protagonist, Calla, is a ‘blue ticket’ who has never especially questioned the system until she begins to realise how much she wants to be a mother. When she becomes pregnant, she flees the city for the wilderness outside, and travels in hope of reaching the ‘border’ to embark on a new life in a different country that doesn’t have the same rules. The first half or so of Blue Ticket, therefore, despite Mackintosh’s sharp writing, feels like YA with weak worldbuilding crossed with the kind of literary novel that Fatma has brilliantly termed ‘Dysfunctional Women Being Dysfunctional’, as Calla careers blindly through her life and we learn very little about how this system works or why it exists.
To my surprise, however, once Calla is firmly established as a fugitive, Blue Ticket becomes a rather different and more interesting book. What began to emerge for me is that Mackintosh is just not interested in writing an actual dystopia or even realist fiction. The female life-cycle that she depicts is, instead, far more stylised and symbolic: at puberty, Calla and the other ‘blue ticket’ girls were required to set off alone on the road to make their way to their new lives, and it is this common experience that comes to define them. As another woman says to Calla, ‘You need to let yourself remember how you did it before… The system has failed us. But our bodies got us here the first time.’ Calla’s flight, therefore, feels less like the typical rebellion of a dystopian heroine but a preordained step in a folktale, especially with the sense that the authorities know what she’s doing all the time. Once the story settles like this, it has moments when it becomes mesmerising. I was especially struck by how Mackintosh makes motherhood weird and fresh again once we see it through the eyes of the ‘blue ticket’ women, who don’t have the inherited knowledge that we take for granted: ‘She turned back and I realised that the baby was attached to her nipple, its mouth locked on to her flesh. I thought about the heaviness of my breasts, hard and blue when I undressed, and it made a terrible new sense.’
Because of its long uncertainty about the kind of book it wants to be, Blue Ticket doesn’t live up to its potential: I wished there had been more about how the ticket system shaped these women’s emotional lives, and that Mackintosh had begun the story with Calla’s decision, allowing us to spend more time with the community she builds outside the city walls. Nevertheless, I was impressed by Mackintosh’s prose, especially on childbirth – in labour, Calla goes ‘up the ladder of the pain, rung by rung’ and, having heard tales of PND, fears that, afterwards, ‘my brain was loosening in my skull’ – and I’d read more by her.
I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 27th August.
A 20 Books of Summer update: I’ve decided that there’s no way I’m going to get through a 500 page + Anglo-Saxon historical epic by the end of August, and so I’ve used one of my two official substitutions to swap out Nicola Griffith’s Hild for Kevin Nguyen’s New Waves, which was also one of my most anticipated books of 2020. I’ll definitely still be reading Hild, though, hopefully in September.