Scurrying in the Dark

Sophie Mackintosh, Blue Ticket

Hamish Hamilton, 304pp, £12.99, ISBN 9780241404454

reviewed by Laurane Marchive

Female identity, traditionally feminine aesthetics and the dynamic between men and women are central concerns for fiction author Sophie Mackintosh. In her Booker-longlisted debut novel The Water Cure, Mackintosh explored the relationships between three sisters raised in the belief that men are poisonous. In her new novel Blue Ticket, she pushes the exploration further by focusing on pregnancy, thus raising fundamental questions: what does it mean to be female, within and without female biology? To have, or lack, maternal instinct (if such a thing exists, beyond the realm of cultural narratives and fantasy)? What does it mean to be, as Blue Ticket’s pregnant heroine Calla puts it upon embarking on a road trip for survival, a ‘warm-blooded female animal’?

Blue Ticket envisions a society that forces girls getting their first period to enter a lottery. Girls who get white tickets are allowed to bear children. If the ticket is blue, motherhood will forever be forbidden to them. When young Calla draws a blue ticket at the beginning of the novel, she takes it as a blessing: without children she will be free, safe from the violence of childbirth and the racket of children. But as she ages over the course of the book and settles into adulthood, a ‘dark feeling’ takes root in her body: she realises she yearns for a child. This yearning stems from a deeply buried instinct Calla cannot articulate, yet in her situation as a blue-ticket woman, this instinct is a perversion. The world of Blue Ticket is a world of binaries. Women are pitted against men, mothers against non-mothers, and, inevitably, law-abiding citizens against law-breakers. What follows is an exploration of free will, femininity, and the tension between the domestic and the natural world.

With Blue Ticket, Mackintosh carves herself further space in the tradition of female dystopia. The lottery, as a plot device, evokes Shirley Jackson’s (1948) short story ‘The Lottery’. In Jackson’s story, as in Blue Ticket, cruelty regiments the domestic world, and structural violence is best executed at random when villagers hold a yearly homicidal stoning contest for no other reason than to honour some long-forgotten tradition. No one can remember when the lottery started, but the elders insist that abandoning the ritual would be tantamount to ‘wanting to go back to living in caves’. The ritual lottery’s shared violence ensures the community’s cohesion.

But Blue Ticket’s nearest predecessor is probably Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Both Atwood and Mackintosh focus on the political implications of placing structural control on motherhood, pregnancy, and female fertility itself. Both works unfold in authoritarian, patriarchal worlds where women are endlessly watched, observed, monitored. In Blue Ticket, this monitoring is done by state doctors who make compulsory checks on women’s weight, blood pressure, and mental health. The reason for this monitoring is never explained, but it is relentless, affecting both blue and white ticket women throughout their lifetimes. No ‘blessed be the fruit’ here, no pillow-case hats, but a sense that white-ticket women are destined for a pastel-coloured life. Meanwhile, blue-ticket women are encouraged to have fun, smoke cigarettes, and wear dark lipstick.

The novel draws on well-worn tropes like the kinship between women and water, and women and nature, establishing an idea of woman that feels rooted in the body, in earthiness. In Blue Ticket there is, on one side, the doctors and the lottery, a regimented world, a social construct. On the other side there is Calla, her maternal desire and animal body. As she tries to escape society, civilisation and its men, Calla meets other pregnant blue ticket women. Together they hide in the woods and for a moment seem to achieve balance, if not happiness. This nature / femininity combo isn’t new for Mackintosh. In The Water Cure, the three sisters are stuck on a beach lined by a mysterious forest. The forest oozes promise, ripeness, and an atmosphere reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty, and it provides the girls with a space that is at once a refuge, a horizon, and a place to seize their destiny.

But by providing women with these mythical spaces of fruitfulness and femininity that effectively keep the men at bay, Mackintosh draws on some heavily conventional dichotomies. In both The Water Cure and Blue Ticket, men are irreducibly different from women; they are naturally violent and dangerous, while women are perpetually afraid. The women can be cruel too, but in sylph-like, Sofia Coppolesque virginal-group sorts of ways: young girls in Blue Ticket are often referred to in the anonymous plural, ‘our bodies pinballs inside a machine.’ They are delicate creatures, who start to ‘faint and grow tall’ at adolescence, creatures who engage in endlessly whimsical activities such as turning the taps on before leaving a room, more out of quirkiness than malevolence or mischief. There is a strange essentialism at play in Mackintosh’s work. In The Water Cure, men are toxic and disrupt the feminine bubble. In Blue Ticket, Calla is most happy when she’s in the company of other pregnant women. In both titles, men are self-serving and practical; gender is treated as a binary rather than a spectrum, and in the face of such essential rigidity, everyone is an animal scurrying in the dark.

As a result, though Blue Ticket explores ideas of randomness and free will (what is the lottery based on? Are blue ticket women lacking in some way? Is maternal instinct nature or nurture?) the novel puts femininity at the forefront without really interrogating it outside of its patriarchally-defining archetype: motherhood. We never really get a sense of who those women are, of what forms their individuality beyond their essential belonging to the same gender. ‘You forget that I know everything about you,’ Calla’s doctor tells her as she tries to escape the system. Calla’s doctor claims to know her better than she knows herself. There is indeed a sense that the character never truly knows herself, and neither does the reader.

Mackintosh’s prose is, as always, dizzyingly beautiful. It brims with imagery and synaesthetic metaphor. As she begins to feel the effects of her pregnancy, Calla’s increasingly vivid dreams are ‘edged with a crystal menace.’ Her writing is also filled with contradictions: after the man who made her pregnant abandons her, Calla ‘hammered (her) fists against the carpet, making no noise at all.’ These contradictions create an in-betweenness of feeling, the moment between fall and impact, and inject the novel with a dream-like quality that is sharp but stylised — almost operatic. There is a fairytale quality to Mackintosh’s prose and to her characterisation. As such, Blue Ticket reads like a ballet of shadows in which all the characters are faceless. It is a painting brought to life where we are simultaneously inside the heroine’s head and kept at a distance.

Blue Ticket lacks the sense of progression, or at least of accumulation, that usually comes with the novel as a form. ‘Grace’, the short story that won Mackintosh the White Review Prize in 2016, was a perfect application of her style: sparse, poetic and enigmatic. Mackintosh’s talent is to take on dystopian themes but treat them through a very tight lens so that the world only reveals itself where and when necessary, dispensing with the world-building that often signals science fiction and fantasy. Her stories stem as much from what she leaves out as from what she shows, and that is what the short-story form is all about. Blue Ticket has those same qualities. But because it is longer, reading it feels like standing on a treadmill trundling steadily through fantastical roads, woods, and beaches, without ever twisting or turning, swooping or accelerating. Like the realisation of an idea taken in its logical conclusion but without the multiple strands that often define the novel as a genre. This is no bad thing in itself, but it is a strange thing. In that sense, Blue Ticket feels like a dream, a mood, an atmospheric journey in a world forever out of reach.
Laurane Marchive is a French writer and director living in London. Her writing has appeared in The London Magazine, The Mechanics’ Institute Review and the TLS. In 2020 she was shortlisted for the London Short Story Prize, and Highly Commended in the Spread The Word Life Writing Prize. She also runs a circus.