Review: The Transcriptionist

*Note: This is a review of a book I have already finished and therefore contains spoilers.  Proceed with appropriate caution.

Mom sometimes says that when I type, it sounds fake, like someone is just smashing the keys randomly to sound as though they’re doing work.  My speed is mostly due to practice – we took “Computer” every year in elementary school and it was always the same.  When I’d finished all the lessons (my least favorite was alternating between L and the semicolon key over and over), I’d try out the Freetyping section until I found a sentence that seemed to flow for me, then repeat it relentlessly until I could do it fast without mistakes.  I first broke 100 words per minute with 100% accuracy on the bizarre query, “Did you know there is a curious creature called the Platypus?”  (Even as a 6th grader, I doubted the capitalization of the creature’s name was correct.)  After that, I quickly realized that in order to keep up with my own thoughts, typing out my stories was much more effective than trying to scribble them down on paper (though I still take notes and journal by hand).

It is this love of typing that led me to pick up Amy Rowland’s debut novel, The Transcriptionistsince the title implied a theme of words and the channels we use to convey those words.  And I was right, in a way.  The eponymous transcriptionist, Lena, works at a New York newspaper, transcribing articles and interviews on tape and sending the words on their way.  She frequently describes it as being a mere conduit and letting other people’s words run through her.  Even in her conversations outside of work (which, initially, are few and far between), Lena quotes from literature she’s read rather than create her own sentences.  She worries that she is dissolving, drowning in Other People’s Words.

The book is a chronicle of Lena’s reaction to one “story so shocking” that it drives her to begin pricking, then ripping, holes in the bubble of words that suffocates her.  There are other characters who can be divided into two camps: those who do not understand what is so wrong with a comfortable, even easy, job, and those who acknowledge her fear and support her in getting unstuck.

There are animals in Lena’s world, too – a pigeon that never leaves the balconette outside her Recording Room window, and a lion that becomes depressed after eating the woman whose death becomes the shocking story that jolts Lena out of her torpor.  She also frequently dreams of a mountain lion from her youth that terrorized her farming community.  Lena’s relationships with these animals reveal as much about her as her relationships with other humans, yet not in a sappy or heavyhanded way.  The pigeon’s true significance is withheld until the very end, and the two big cats’ effects on Lena are far from straightforward.

I was riveted by the idea of someone’s agency suffocating beneath too many words, seeing as my own relationship with language has been one that allowed me to discover aspects of myself rather than bury them.  The only weakness in Rowland’s prose was her tendency toward verbose dialogue that didn’t seem real – but then again, given Lena’s propensity for letting Other People’s Words slip into her conversation, perhaps it was appropriate to the character, if a bit distracting for the reader.

Lena’s long-ignored fears bubble to the surface and carry the plot swiftly along in a brilliant example of how the struggle to change one simple life can be just as compelling as a sweeping drama.

4/5 stars on Goodreads


Have you read The Transcriptionist?  What did you think of it?  What is your relationship with words like?

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