Lena Respass is alone in her job as a transcriptionist for the Record, a major New York newspaper. She’s the last of her profession, made almost completely unnecessary by technological advances, and she sits alone in a room on her building’s eleventh floor, transcribing called-in stories. Stories from Lena’s Dictaphone thread endlessly through her head, even when she’s not working, and they leave her numb and strangely uneasy.
When Lena sees a print story in the Record about Arlene Lebow, a woman who climbed into the lions’ den at the zoo and was killed, she recognizes her. It’s the same woman she recently sat next to on a city bus. She had talked with the Arlene, who was blind, and felt oddly connected to her. Was the woman trying to tell her something?
Lena becomes obsessed with the story and wants to understand why Arlene would choose to end her life in such a violent way. She desperately wants to give Arlene the honor of being remembered. Like the stories she transcribes, Arlene’s death fills Lena’s mind. And these thoughts begin to overlap Lena’s own feelings about being raised on a farm by a strict religious father, about her mother’s death and about the newspaper profession, which to her has taken an unattractive turn. The answers she finds don’t seem to help Lena, however. Instead, she becomes more and more removed from the people around her.
The Transcriptionist is an unusual combination: a story about an emotionally unsettled woman and a commentary on the business of reporting news, especially since 9/11. Right away, Rowland provides a view into the way things are in the newsroom, the hierarchies, the egos, and the competition. She also points to the inevitable technological changes that meet resistance, and it’s incorporated nicely into the plot, with a mysterious feel-good character. In addition, The Transcriptionist gives the reader an unflattering look at reporters’ motives. Do they want to report the news or create fame for themselves? Is it a newspaper’s job to fight the war on terrorism or should they just report the news?
This is Rowland’s debut novel and she knows her material. She’s spent over ten years working at the New York Times, much of it as a transcriptionist, and now as an editor in the Book Review section.
Rowland includes many literary references, which are built into Lena’s tendency to quote books and poetry. It’s one of the things that distances Lena from other people and, in a way, I think, from the reader. Lions and birds, especially pigeons and a predatory falcon, also figure prominently throughout the book, from the lion statues that sit outside the library, to the pigeon outside Lena’s office window, to the mountain lion on the loose during Lena’s childhood, and of course, the lion in the den. The lion and falcon references invite the reader to think about the instinct of killing in nature. The lion kills Arlene by this instinct, but her death leaves the animal, used to being fed, in limbo. Did Arlene’s suicide remind the lion of what its life could be?
I enjoyed reading The Transcriptionist. It’s very different from other books, so it was a nice change and it’s quick and easy. Its difference, however, makes it a bit of a quirky read. But I like books that make you think after you’ve finished and The Transcriptionist does that.
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