Book Review: Ticket to Ride // Dennis Potter

Imagine sitting on a train bound for London when you suddenly lose your memory. This is what seems to happen to John. I say seems, as little in Dennis Potter’s psychological thriller Ticket to Ride is exactly how it appears on the surface. Odd fragments from John’s past float in and out of his disoriented mind – a creepy nursery rhyme, the name of a plant, a mysterious young woman throwing a stone into a pond – and, pressing on his conscience is the frightening certainty that he has done something unspeakably bad. His immaculately clean attire, the thousands of pounds in his wallet, and the absence of a driving licence or any other form of identification point towards a man who is keen to leave his past behind and make a fresh start.

What first begins as John’s frustrating attempts to piece together vague recollections of his former self quickly develops into a haunting psychological study of a man driven towards depravity and violence by his alter ego, who takes the form of a wicked voice in his head. His wife Helen’s disturbed psyche is also examined as we learn more of her murky past and how she came to know her husband.

Potter deploys a complex narrative structure in Ticket to Ride, in which any steady grasp of time or reality flies out of the window. The narrative constantly shifts between John and Helen’s perspectives, leaving us less and less certain as to what is real and what may be the fantastic creation of two troubled minds. They are two characters very much detached from those around them, and it is suitably challenging to understand who they truly are. Just when we think we have them sussed, or begin to empathise with their plights, Potter throws in a curve ball that makes us completely reassess our initial views. 

‘He allowed his eyes to wander. There were people everywhere. But none of them was as free as he was. They each had a label to attend to, a call to obey. I am not attached. I can soar to whatever state or condition I wish to create for myself…’

Dennis Potter

Always present in the midst of the many flashbacks and the possibly imagined scenes is the novel’s linear timeline which goes back and forth between John in London and Helen waiting anxiously in their large Victorian home for his return. The purpose of his journey is to pitch his drawings of wildflowers to a publisher. His wife is desperate for him to be successful, firstly because he has recently lost his job, and also since she hopes it will help him snap out of the strange behaviour that has seen him acting coldly towards her and spending hours alone in ‘The Work Room’ obsessively agonising over his illustrations.

Ticket to Ride is a riveting read, and Potter constructs the story in a way that leaves us excitedly trying to fit each clue together with even the most seemingly insignificant details in order to figure out what has really been happening to these characters. Whether a totally clear picture can in fact be drawn from it all is debatable and depends very much on the reader and their own interpretation of events. Regardless, the end result is sure to be an unsettling feeling that lingers long after the book’s conclusion, as well as total admiration for Dennis Potter’s inventive prose.

Words by Callum McGee

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