When Calla gets her period at age 14, she celebrates by dressing up and going to the lottery station to find out “what kind woman” she will be. A blue ticket presented by a machine means she will be able to live her life free from any maternal obligations, free to do as she chooses, as long as she never has a child. A white ticket means babies and a life of domesticity only, with no other options available. Calla draws a blue ticket, and is set on her path to a life free from any familial or maternal obligations, without ever being asked what she may have wanted. “It began with the allocating of luck, our bodies pinballs inside a machine,” she tells us in Sophie Mackintosh’s latest novel, Blue Ticket.

The adult Calla works a day job in the city and spends her evenings and nights living a completely independent life. She drinks, smokes, goes to bars and clubs with other blue-ticket women. She sleeps with anyone she wants and is never questioned or judged for living with both sexual and hedonistic abandon. No one expects her to ‘settle down’, no one asks when she’ll find the right man to start a family with, and no one ever thinks that she feels empty inside, even with the fullest life she can possibly be leading.

Eighteen years after the lottery decided her fate, Calla gives in to the urge that will not let her rest, the “new and dark feeling” inside her, and forcibly removes the intrauterine device (IUD) fitted inside her as a teenager, at home, with a pair of pliers and some Dutch courage. Is it motherhood she craves, or is it a desire to have the choice?

“Sometimes I became aware that there was somewhere I could not go. And I wanted to go there. Who wouldn’t, when told it was impossible? Motherhood was the last perversion; otherwise known as loving and being loved. It was the only one closed off to me.

A novel about a society where bodily choices are made for women is set in a strange dystopian world. Or is it?

I want. There was a purity to that feeling that other sensations lacked, a simplicity, even as it remained the most complicated thing in the world.”

Calla, like so many women, desires to be more than she is allowed to be.

The premise of Blue Ticket is not an unbelievable one, scant as Mackintosh is with world-building details, since governments already have a certain autonomy over women’s bodies in many countries. Patriarchal systems are either still controlling, or mostly in charge of how gender roles play out, or are the reason why we have clichéd societal roles in the first place. Not much suspension of disbelief is needed to imagine that a standardised system picks which women should have children. Is it to curb population? That doesn’t appear to be a bad idea given the state of the world even now, though Mackintosh does not spread her narrative world-building net wide enough for us to gauge whether this is the system all over the world, or just where Calla happens to be — an unnamed, vaguely Western sort of country with small towns and safe cities filled with offices, bars, clubs and the apparent freedom of choice for anything that isn’t motherhood.

The girls who pick tickets in the towns are sent onwards right away, armed with a compass and a sandwich, and told to head where they want. But there is something vaguely threatening about the start of their new lives: at 14, they are still children, some crying out for their mothers, some afraid of what’s to come, “bewildered as fawns.” Later, as an adult in the city, Calla has a male lover who tells her (and us) that while boys may not have the lottery, they, too, are sent out on their own to make their way into adulthood. But here, too, pieces are missing. What happens between the age of 14 and adulthood for either gender? How does Calla end up working in a laboratory in the city, having chosen to “enter chemistry because of the comfort in it”, and because she “loved the repetition, the sense of something elemental at work”?

But somehow the barebones and lean world-building is not stilted, and only a little frustrating — perhaps knowing little about the world of the book is what forces the reader to pull focus to Calla’s microcosm, that of her small life, her desires and her desperate measures to take ownership of her body.

We are not told why the lottery exists, we are not told why blue-ticket women such as Calla seem to have no idea about the logistics of childbirth (though they know how pregnancy happens and that the IUD fitted in them at age 14 is what stops them from getting pregnant), but we are told that “doctors” help the women sort through their feelings, “emissaries” are sent after any rogue women, and that every woman is judged and treated according to the colour of a piece of paper allotted to her at puberty. And that is enough to create the moody, fearful atmosphere that exists throughout the book.

The machine was silent as it discharged a sliver of hard paper into my hand. It was a deep cobalt. Congratulations, the possible doctor in the dark suit said to me. The other girls followed, each taking their own ticket from the machine in turn. Almost a full house! He explained at the end, reading a piece of paper spat out from the machine. We huddled and compared tickets. They were all blue, except for one, which was white. The girl with the white ticket was escorted into a separate room by the doctor and another emissary. We watched the three of them walk through an unlit doorway. When the doctor came back he clapped his hands twice. You have been spared, he said with a terrible benevolence. — Excerpt from the book

When Calla runs for her — and her future baby’s — life, she meets other women who have also tried to escape the roles assigned to them. None of them know why they’ve been told what sort of life to lead, but they do know that it isn’t for them. What comes across as the true horror in Blue Ticket, though, is not just that women’s agency over their bodies has been taken away, but that even the women who want the other option truly seem to believe that they must choose only one, that one woman really cannot have it all. Mackintosh pushes her readers to ask the uncomfortable question of whether women really can have both a career-driven, independent life and motherhood simultaneously.

In the world of Blue Ticket: no. Calla has been socialised to believe that if she has been spared the life of motherhood, it is because there is a “lack in my brain, my body, my soul, or something. There was a flaw I should not pass on. A warmth I was missing.” But she debates this within herself constantly, and to her it means “a different thing” every time she thinks about it.

Perhaps being told she may never have a child is indeed a mercy, perhaps her life is “precious enough as it was.” Calla herself isn’t a character easy to like — she seems cold, complicated and calculating most of the time but, ultimately, she wants what anyone else does: the freedom to choose who she is and will be. Will she make it to safety before the birth of her child? Will she even be able to take care of the child once it is born, if she has not been deemed fit for motherhood by the state?

Mackintosh’s debut novel, the equally haunting and strange The Water Cure, was long-listed for the 2018 Man Booker. It, too, focused on the inner lives of young women in a world that wasn’t what we knew it to be, and perhaps not even what they understood it to be. Blue Ticket intimately continues that feeling of loneliness, oppression and a complete removal of female characters’ agency, and gives us a narrative that asks uncomfortable questions about societal pressures, motherhood, and ownership over your own body.

The reviewer is a book critic, editor of The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories and hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com

Blue Ticket
By Sophie Mackintosh
Doubleday, UK
ISBN: 978-0385545631
304pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 4th, 2020

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