In this dystopian tale we are told of her life by Calla. When girls reach their first period they are summoned to an official centre where they are subjected to a medical then are asked to take part in a lottery. Some will receive a white ticket, but Calla, like most, will win a “blue ticket” that she will place in a locket bequeathed by her mother. She will then say goodbye to her father, be given a small survival pack and will be advised to head for a city somewhere to “the South”. When we see her 18 years later, she lives and works in a settlement for “blue ticket” women in the City, life is seemingly good, she has a job, house, new lover. But then decides she wants more choice and that will involve having a child.
As the tale unrolls we are introduced to this strange world that is similar in some respects to some places now, but on examination has distortions and differences. White ticket women are allowed to marry and have children – albeit there might be increased risk to this. Blue ticket women are not supposed to have children so have been implanted with a contraceptive device. They are medically monitored for both their physical and medical condition to ensure they meet the “no pregnancy” rule. When Calla finds herself pregnant and will not agree to an abortion she is warned that this will not be tolerated and unless she escapes to an “another” place outside the zone – that apparently lies a distance to the north, she will be tracked down and dealt with. On her route north – which forms a substantive part of this novel – she will meet others who will help or hinder her. But she has to test herself both mentally, physically and emotionally in a way that has not been necessary since her original testing trip south as a teenager.

This is a simple hypothesis to underlie this tale, but it asks many questions. Do we really have choices or is life determined by chance? Even if the first “choice” has been made, should one be expected to stand firm by it? But as Calla travels north we see a spectrum of seemingly casual but much more invidiously destructive tally of ways of life. With the two “choices” for females established when they are still children as the social norm. with little variation allowed, and enforced by both specific watchers and the wider community. The requirement is for women to stay within their specific role of blue (and of course white too). We are shown potential for serious sexual violence against “blue ticket” women seen to be acting outwith their parameters. Women are expected to police themselves but medication either by drugs, or casual acceptance of heavy alcohol intake to ensure compliance seems to be part of the picture. Serious ignorance of the lives of others – or indeed the nature of pregnancy and childbirth, makes compliance the easiest choice for most.

It is hard to say more without spoiling this subtle, multi layered and deeply considered parable. It is a compelling read that draws the reader along at speed. But it also asks a number of questions about compliance, choice, respect for others and the price of loyalty. When would you sell another down the river to get what you want? What price would you pay for friendship? Who can you trust in a dark place? Is making choices about the actual result – or just about establishing the right to make a choice? This novel resonates through the brain for ages after. A re-read allows you to recognise the placement of clues as to the nature of the place that through “ignorance” might have passed you by. But by then you might know that allowing ignorance is a form of control. And by then you might be asking deeper questions about the other people Calla came into contact with and the nature of their collusion, or lack of morality or care for others. You might not like what you read here – but it asks serious questions of the reader and challenges their basic values.

Hilary White 5/5*

Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh
9780241404454 Hamish Hamilton Hardback 2020