How women treat one another here is so intriguing, in ways reminiscent of Mackintosh’s first book, The Water Cure, or of Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under, but utterly made new. Themes of twoness, aloneness and reflections permeate the book and the idea of trust.
The “real and fake” sit side by side in Blue Ticket, like frozen turkeys at a simulated supermarket (on many occasions I imagined this chilling, brilliant book as a video game from the 1990s). Dreams play an essential role within the narrative; animalistic and raw but tinged with exquisite, newly born hues: “I cut my palm open . . . and out of my wounds oozed not blood, but an ink-like substance the colour of deep indigo.”
Of course, patriarchy warps those it privileges as well as those it negates, but this reads as simplistic. I also became uncomfortable, in the end, with the characterisation of blue-ticket Calla examining her existence: “I was no longer going to live like that, jumping for scraps.” Yes, the book is narrated from Calla’s point of view, and these opinions belong to her; we often diminish the thing of which we fight to be free. But the narrative voice seems to channel damaging cliches about childless women; and after all the clear-eyed harshness, the idea of maternity, of being a “true mother”, is mushily romanticised. A more persuasive complexity has been lost – as though Mackintosh set something running that was so powerful, it got away from her.
The early chapters are best, thrumming with the feverish unknowability of puberty. ‘It was the year of overlapping adolescences, when the girls started to faint and grow tall.’ They rush eagerly towards their fate, while the reader looks on aghast. ‘I felt no great fidelity to the concept of free will. At 14 I had been awaiting the future for months.’ Macintosh, whose debut The Water Cure was longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2018, writes with an ethereal lyricism that is equally capable of fragility and violence.
This is a clever and intriguing novel that invites the reader to examine bonds and divisions between women, as well as the dangers faced by those who do not conform. Ultimately, it shows the desire to love brings great risks but also hope. That might be foolish but it’s better than the alternative.
Although Blue Ticket will be welcomed into the canon of feminist dystopian literature, on the whole its concerns are more everyday, more domestic than that makes it sound. Its main aim isn’t to make the case for a woman’s right to choose, but to explore the mysterious inner forces that motivate her choice. Calla is a naive narrator who struggles to understand the maternal instinct building inside her. At first this makes for prose that can feel merely atmospheric, as if pictured through a haze; the dystopia is sketched in faint lines and that parental urge, for much of the novel, is ascribed only to a vague “dark feeling”. Yet Mackintosh handles that haziness deliberately and with poise.
Blue Ticket has two modes, two paces. There’s reverie, in the elegant passages where Calla ruminates on motherhood. And there’s the thrill of the chase, as she flees the city, heading north and becoming an unlikely survivalist. Both are expertly fashioned, and Mackintosh’s prose is relentlessly fine; but in being aware of an alternate gear, you’re always expecting it to change. For all the deftness of its style, Blue Ticket is playing two games at once, and it’s a fraction less seamless or eerie than The Water Cure was. Still, it’s unsettling, as it should be, and besides, the bar was set so high. Even for a writer as skilled as Mackintosh, enchantment is a difficult thing.
Mackintosh has a particular gift for coolly articulating visceral primal instincts and shaping them into controlled, striking prose. This is a potent exploration of biology and agency, motherhood and childlessness, which confirms her as a writer of note.