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Friday, May 30, 2014

The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland

The Transcriptionist is a sort of introspection by proxy.  Lena is 33 and the last transcriptionist at The Record.  Her day consists of listening to reporters call in new stories (from the tragic to the trivial; a bombing in Kabul, a dance review) as she transcribes them.  Alone in the isolated Recording Room on the 11th floor, Lena is force fed thousands of words through her ear phones as her fingers rapidly record whatever is being said.  Lena thinks about "the passivity of witnessing tragedy, witnessing it with my ears, and serving as a conduit...passing the news through my body and sending it to be processed into tidy column inches."

It is rare that anyone visits the Recording Room in person, but Russell, a reporter, does so occasionally.  He seems interested in Lena, but is surprised to eventually realize that her name is not Carol, which he has been calling her for some time.  It is significant that she answers to Carol and doesn't feel it is important to correct Russell, almost as if she really is only a "conduit."

Then Lena discovers a story about a blind woman mauled to death by a lion at the New York Zoo.  It dawns on Lena that this is the woman she sat beside on the bus and with whom she had a brief conversation.  The story grips her; it is personal because she met and conversed with the blind woman.  Lena becomes obsessed with finding out more about her.  The more she learns, the more she sees a connection with her own life.

This investigation into the life of the blind woman may sound suspenseful, but somehow, it isn't.  What it does, however, is give Lena a chance to pay attention to the direction her life has taken, to evaluate,  and to make some decisions.

The Transcriptionist is a debut novel that " asks probing questions journalism and ethics"; that discusses the declines newspapers have suffered as a result of online news sources; and that examines the effects of isolation and complacency.

It is a strange little book.  I found it interesting, but not gripping, and yet, I don't think it is a book I will soon forget.

An ARC from Algonquin.

Literary Fiction.  2014.  246 pages.


  1. Sounds interesting and strange. Was this/is this still a real job that people have? It sounds very isolating.

  2. Yes, although I don't know if there are any transcriptionists left at newspapers because of digital devices. The author worked as a transcriptionist for the New York Times for about ten years.

    The woman who committed suicide was a court recorder which is very similar--the transcription of spoken language. That was one of the things the protagonist felt they had in common.

  3. I liked the idea of this book, and from your review, think it's one worth giving a try--and yet, I still find myself on the fence about it.

  4. Wendy - It is a strange little book and not a fast read, short though it is. I think I'm on the fence, too.

  5. This one sounds interesting. I don't think I've read anything like this.

  6. This one sounds interesting. I don't think I've read anything like this.

  7. Melody - I think this is a debut novel, and it definitely has personal connections. I'm curious about what Rowland might write next.