by Ioannis Argiris

Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh is set in an alternate reality where teenage girls are sent to a lottery building to receive a white or a blue ticket. If the ticket is white, the girl is destined to marry and have babies. If the ticket is blue, the girl has an IUD installed, and she is not allowed to have babies. Instead, blue ticket women are free to live their lives, becoming independent.

We lined up, waiting to pull our tickets from the machine, the way you would take your number at the butcher’s counter. The music popular that year played from speakers on the ceiling. Just gravity enough. Just ceremony enough. Not necessarily such an important thing, after all.

Blue Ticket is about free will versus societal control. The idea of tradition versus progress in ideals and values is at the heart of the story, and at times it will have you rooting for and against the protagonist.

We meet Calla, a blue ticket woman who can work whatever job she wants, be with whomever she pleases, and is free to live whatever lifestyle she chooses. But Calla is curious about and wants something she cannot have—a baby. We see her struggle to grasp her identity as a blue ticket woman, yet we hope that she can break through at times to grow.

I saw this sort of woman everywhere once I started to look. I had counted myself among their number, and then one day they seemed like secret agents out to seed the word of independence, of pleasure-seeking and fulfilment. Isn’t this good, they said from beneath the canopies of nightclub smoking areas, from tables where they sat alone, from cars and train carriages and beds, some in elegant suits or other uniforms to show their importance. They made impressive things and spent their time on worthwhile pursuits and I had been one of them, and the togetherness had sometimes felt like being one of a flock of lovely birds pushing through the hot space of the sky, and it was good, that was the thing, it was really so good, but now there was something happening to me, and I found I had little control over it.

Doctors are assigned to neighborhoods to ensure that both white and blue ticket women are staying on course per society’s rules. Calla confesses to Doctor A that she is restless and that nothing and no one seems to fulfill her in the life she’s been given. She later meets R at a bar, a man who takes interest in her, but who also sleeps with other blue ticket women. Calla dreams of settling down with R and being his white ticket woman, having a baby, and seeing him push a pram with their newborn. Calla removes her IUD, continues to sleep with R, and eventually gets pregnant. Calla asks R if he ever wants to be a father, and he dodges the question. She confesses to Doctor A that babies have a power over her. That the first time she saw a baby, she had to run to the nearest private space and hold in a howl until it subsided. She questions: What makes a mother? A father? What was she lacking? She compares herself to a baby—“all sensation, no discipline. A broken engine thrumming with need.”

After she breaks the news to R, he accuses her of scheming and asks why? Calla says he wouldn’t understand, but R counters with, “‘[Y]ou have an emotional disease.’” Devastated by R’s reaction, Calla seeks help from Doctor A to discuss what’s happened. The idea of having a want that goes against society’s structure can be hard to process, but we all face similar decisions in life—whether you want to marry outside of your religion, or fall in love with someone of the same gender, or leave family to travel across many lands to pursue a career. What Sophie Mackintosh shows us in Blue Ticket is the strength of someone who is willing to die to fight for what they really believe in—a commitment tied to values that don’t align with everyone else around Calla.

Doctor A performs an ultrasound and informs Calla that she’ll be reported. It’s unclear what happens to blue ticket women who do get pregnant. Calla is on edge, all alone in her house waiting for the worst to happen. And this mystery creates a tension throughout the novel—on every next page you fear Calla might get caught. The next morning, an emissary drops by Calla’s house to provide her with gear—a tent, a gun, and a map—a signal that she must leave society.

Alone on the road, we see Calla balance survival between two worlds. Her old life draws her into bars only to be found out as pregnant and stigmatized for it. She runs into a young teen who just received her blue ticket and who asks Calla for help. Calla, seeing her younger self, gives the teen her car and sets off on foot into the forest. Calla’s journey continues on the road, along the coast, and finally at a border crossing—as reflected in the book’s sections. Calla is in full blown survivalist mode up against the raw terrains Mackintosh dreams up and continues to be tested for the fate she’s chosen. The tension rises when we learn that Calla has been given no prior knowledge about the transformation the body undergoes during pregnancy and finds both comfort and disdain as it happens. At the border, she’s visited by people from her past and has to make hard decisions to live. The novel’s tone can be lonely and cold, primarily because it’s about enduring in a society structured against the protagonist. However, what the author delivers is the hard reality of what it feels like for women to be given predetermined roles they must play in society. The author challenges us to think about whether we really are in control of our lives.

Sophie Mackintosh’s first novel, The Water Cure, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2018.

Ioannis Argiris is based in Oakland, California, and is pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing through the Low Residency program at UC Riverside. He is currently working on his first novel and also his first graphic novel. You can find him online on both Twitter and Instagram.