A Novel Asks: What if Women Were Forbidden From Doing It All? – The New York Times

Social Science


Sophie Mackintosh presents us with a dystopian tale of a woman desperate to have a child in a place that affords only certain women that privilege.Credit…Sophie Davidson

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By Sophie Mackintosh

In “Blue Ticket,” the follow-up to her 2019 debut, “The Water Cure,” Sophie Mackintosh presents us with a dystopian tale of a woman desperate to have a child in a place that affords only certain women that privilege.

Calla’s first period prompts her father to take her to a ceremony of sorts wherein she is presented with evidence of what she has always suspected: “Blue ticket: I was not motherly. It had been judged that it wasn’t for me by someone who knew better than I did.” She is outfitted with what seems to be an IUD, though contraception (like everything else involving her body) is never explained to her. She is then sent to “the city,” on a treacherous journey we read about only briefly, ominously, after the fact, as if Calla can’t bear to face it head-on: “I know what the boys do on that road.”

Once there, however, Calla finds unexpected freedom, in a world (almost) without limitations on her behavior. She drinks, smokes, dances and has sex with both men and women, with abandon. She has a house, a job, a car. There are only two rules: She must have regular visits with Doctor A, a mysterious but well-drawn figure of both menace and comfort; and she is prohibited from getting pregnant.

[ Read an excerpt from “Blue Ticket.” ]

But Calla describes her burgeoning desire for a child as a “dark feeling” that will not be denied. One day she removes her own contraceptive device with a pair of tweezers, and then begins a relationship with a serviceable man, R, under the pretense of being a true “blue ticket” woman — in other words, not the kind of woman you have to worry about committing to.

Doctor A soon discovers that Calla is pregnant, and gives her two options: terminate the pregnancy, or get a 12-hour head start as the authorities pursue her. She doesn’t know exactly what they will do when they find her — obviously nothing good — but Calla’s instincts and desires guide her to choose the latter: “The choice seemed simple and yet the wrong answer was pulsing in me.”

In this post-apocalyptic universe, the nightmare is not on the surface.

The rest of the story follows her dangerous path to the border, which promises safety — a path made more dangerous by her increasingly conspicuous belly. En route she encounters strangers both threatening and generous, sometimes both at once. She forms a meaningful and tender bond with a fellow pregnant “blue ticket” woman, who gives herself the fake name Marisol. As they continue their trek to the border together, Marisol’s character develops satisfying complexity along the way.

Other women enter Calla’s life throughout the book, too, providing necessary perspectives on childbearing, romance and the world in which they find themselves, and prompting insights from Calla herself that wouldn’t otherwise find their way into the story. Mackintosh gives full names only to her female characters, and at one point Calla muses that men are “less able to see into or through me.” Her trust in her gender is reciprocal: Other women are the ones to see Calla most clearly, for better or worse, and she sees them more clearly in return. But Calla herself is the pillar of the story, a compelling figure who balances thoughtfulness with ferocity, and whose growth throughout is more than earned.

Calla’s impending childbirth provides the story with a tense, ticking clock: Will she make it to the border, to safety and freedom, before it is too late?

This tense plot is nonetheless told with such restraint and subtlety that the one or two heavy-handed moments felt odd, as if they belonged to a different book. A few turns felt rushed, but over all the writing is clear and sharp, with piercing moments of wisdom and insight that drive toward a pitch-perfect ending.

Like “The Water Cure,” “Blue Ticket” is not a book that offers easy answers. It does not explain how the world ended up this way — or even where in the world, exactly, the story takes place. This lack of concrete information is far from frustrating, but rather essential to the narrative effect: something allegorical and dreamlike, a story that doesn’t so much declare things about our outside world as reveal, intimately, Calla’s interior one. That isn’t to say there are no meaningful parallels to be drawn between the protagonist’s experience and that of being a woman in today’s world — but these are drawn not through the dystopian premise, but through the story’s thoughtful specificity.

Mackintosh successfully avoids a potential pitfall of the genre: its single-issue focus. In this postapocalyptic universe, the nightmare is not on the surface; Calla has the illusion of freedom. (“You could do anything,” Doctor A tells her, “almost anything.”) This element of choice allows Mackintosh to more thoroughly explore her themes of self-determination and misogyny.

In this way, “Blue Ticket” adds something new to the dystopian tradition set by Orwell’s “1984” or Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Those novels were like mirrors, meant to reflect us back to ourselves with horrifying clarity. “Blue Ticket” concerns itself more with its small cast of characters than with the world they occupy, but the novel is no less relevant or incisive for its intimacy. It is as much about the tension between independence and obligation, between desire and capability, as it is about contemporary womanhood: under constant threat just for having a body, and longing to decide your own fate.