BLUE TICKET by Sophie Mackintosh (Doubleday, 304 pp. $26.95)
A controlling father imposed his warped definition of female nature on his daughters in Sophie Mackintosh's first book, "The Water Cure," longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2018. Constraints on women's behavior continue to be a theme in her new novel, "Blue Ticket,' about an unspecified nation where girls who have reached puberty draw tickets in a lottery to determine their future. The details about what this means emerge slowly in Mackintosh's elliptical text, after 14-year-old Calla pulls a blue ticket from the machine.
"You have been spared," a doctor tells Calla and the other blue ticket recipients as the single white-ticket girl is escorted into a separate room by an "emissary." Another doctor inserts a birth control device in Calla, who knows that the blue ticket means she will never have children. "I was glad," she tells us. "Don't underestimate the relief of a decision being taken away from you."
She feels differently 18 years later. The world of "independence, of pleasure-seeking and fulfillment" her blue ticket promised has mostly involved a lot of drinking and sex, some of it violent. Her most meaningful relationship is with Doctor A, who monitors her physical and emotional condition and writes a lot of prescriptions. Doctors seem to have a great deal of control over the woman they supervise, but Mackintosh keeps the details deliberately vague, intensifying the mood of generalized dread.
That mood also colors Calla's decision to remove her birth control device. What Calla really wants, the author shows us, isn't necessarily a baby; it's an answer. "I was not motherly. It had been judged that it wasn't for me," she tells us when she gets the blue ticket. Years later, she wants to know, "What made a mother? What was the thing I was lacking?"
The answer, near the end of Calla's odyssey, provides the novel's most brutal moment. And this is a brutal society; Calla has known that since she got her blue ticket, a bottle of water, a compass and a sandwich and was told to go "to the place of your choice." When an emissary arrives at her door three days after her pregnancy has been discovered, she thinks, "At least they gave me a tent this time."
As Calla flees shadowy pursuers, we learn from her memories that the blue ticket entered girls in a struggle for survival; they had to reach their destination alive to claim the ticket's alleged rewards, and not every girl made it.
Written in cool, clinical prose parceled out in short paragraphs separated by lots of white space, "Blue Ticket" does not aim to stir our emotions, even though it deals with emotionally fraught material. Mackintosh traffics in ambivalence and ambiguity, suitable tools for charting Calla's hesitant progress toward, if not self-knowledge, at least knowledge of what she is looking for.