Review: The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland
A few days ago Lena Respass had a strange encounter with Arlene Lebow on a New York City bus. They shared similarities and an uncertain connection with the blind woman. Today she reads that Arlene was found mauled by lions at the Bronx Zoo after climbing into the lions den to end her life. Lena cannot put Arlene out of her mind. Fearing that she may one day be devoured by the words of others just as Arlene was devoured by lions, Lena sets out to discover Arlene’s story.
She closes her eyes, and the blind woman’s face emerges with the immovable faces of the library lions, then the faces of the lions at their terrible task, ripping away the woman’s limbs, her fingers.
And then he appears. Her own devourer, the one who has followed her everywhere for years, elusive and yet ever close, he always comes.
Lena is an awkward person. The last transcriptionist on staff at The Record, a major newspaper, Lena lives in an isolated world. She works alone all day listening to other people’s stories. She lives by herself in a small apartment for women only. When talking with people she frequently quotes from works of literature at unexpected times. And she has begun to think that she is disappearing and her mind is being taken over by the words of others.
She awakens in the morning with someone else’s words, someone else’s thoughts, ribboning around her brain. … “I sit alone all day with the voices. I’m turning into a tape recorder,” she says. “Its’ frightening. I’m turning into a machine.”
A beautifully written, fast paced read, The Transcriptionist shows us how easily one can get lost in today's world. Rowland demonstrates how language connects us to humanity when you bring your own voice to the world. Lena lives in a state of detachment until she connects with Arlene. On Lena’s journey to uncover Arlene’s story she meets Kov, a kindred spirit at The Record who spends his days cataloging the paper obituary archives before they are lost. Kov understands Lena and appreciates the nobility of what she does as a transcriptionist. For Kov, cataloging the obituaries is about not letting those lives be lost. If Lena had not met Arlene she would not have ventured out into worlds unknown to her. If not for meeting Kov, and others along the way, she might not have had the courage to continue her quest.
“I’m sorry, Kov. I – I quote from things a lot. I sometimes forget how to talk to people. And quotes help me.”
He closes the window and brushes his hands together. “You don’t do it to help you talk to people. You do it to preserve your distance.”
“Why would I do that?”
“I’m sure you have your reasons.”
While some of the plot elements were a little predictable, the experience of the characters and the skillful writing made this an enjoyable read. Watching Lena’s character unfold as she goes through her journey to find her voice kept me interested. I appreciated Lena’s awkward quirkiness and could understand how difficult it was for her to open up. Her fear at the idea of being swallowed up by the words of others is palpable. Rowland has created an endearing character that you want to see overcome.