Book Reviews

The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland

The Transcriptionist“This powerful debut follows a woman who sets out to challenge the absurdity of the world around her. Lena, the transcriptionist, sits alone in a room far away from the hum of the newsroom that is the heart of the Record, the New York City newspaper for which she works.

For years, she has been the ever-present link for reporters calling in stories from around the world. Turning spoken words to print, Lena is the vein that connects the organs of the paper. She is loyal, she is unquestioning, yet technology is dictating that her days there are numbered. When she reads a shocking piece in the paper about a Jane Doe mauled to death by a lion, she recognizes the woman in the picture. They had met on a bus just a few days before. Obsessed with understanding what caused the woman to deliberately climb into the lion’s den, Lena begins a campaign for truth that will destroy the Record’s complacency and shake the venerable institution to its very foundation.

An exquisite novel that asks probing questions about journalism and ethics, about the decline of the newspaper and the failure of language, it is also the story of a woman’s effort to establish her place in an increasingly alien and alienating world.” ~Goodreads



Debut novel, The Transcriptionist (May 13) by Amy Rowland is an interesting little story (merely 256 pages) that feels more like a short story or a fable that has a strong message about language, listening and finding your true self.

From the synopsis, Lena has a brief but powerful encounter with a blind woman, Arlene Lebow, on a bus (later mauled to death by lions) and finds striking similarities about their lives. Lena is the last transcriptionist at the Record and Arlene a court reporter, both using their hearing and silence to record other people’s stories. Day after day, Lena is surrounded with tragic stories, news events and trivial tabloid fodder, trapping her in a place of suffering. She finds herself living through the lives of others instead of making a life of her own and having her own voice. Her only “friendships” are with a pigeon who appears at her office window every day and later a preservationist at the Record named Kov.

Lena discovers that what she transcribes doesn’t always make it into the final published piece. She begins to get fed up with what is considered “news worthy” and how stories, like that of the mauled woman, never get the recognition they deserve. The people and events that live in the shadows of life tend to get overlooked. Forgotten. Similar to herself.

“There are two management styles at the Record and a constant struggle between the two: the advocates of ambiguity, and the supporters of the more aggressive “mushroom model” (keep them in the dark and feed them shit).”

There are several references to literary figures like Chaucer and Bradbury, which also emphasize the importance of language and recorded stories to be remembered and quoted. But what struck me most about this story, aside from the descriptive prose which gave the feeling of isolation, was how important listening is. People who are introverted or socially awkward and tend to listen rather than speak up are rarely given the attention they deserve.

“Listening doesn’t make us disappear. It just helps us recognize our absurdity, our humanity. It’s what binds us together.”

Finding out that Amy Rowland was also a transcriber for many years gave this story more weight than just someone writing about it. You don’t need the experience of working in the media or a newsroom to get a sense of the isolation but it definitely gave Rowland an edge to her writing. The whole message of the story reminded me of the quote from The Shawshank Redemption, “get busy living or get busy dying”. 

*Thank you to Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill and NetGalley for the advance reading copy. I was not compensated or required to review this novel. Quotes might have been changed in the final printed copy.

To learn more about Amy Rowland visit her Twitter page @AmyRowland718.


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