“No one can find it. That’s the first thing. The Recording Room is on the eleventh floor, at the end of a rat-hued hallway that some workers at the newspaper have never seen; they give up on the ancient elevator, which makes only local stops with loud creaks of protest. Like New Yorkers who refuse to venture above Fourteenth Street, there are newspaper workers who refuse to go above the fourth floor for fear of being lost forever if they leave the well-lit newsroom for dark floors unknown.
In this room you’ll find Lena. She works as a transcriptionist for the Record, a behemoth New York City newspaper. There once were many transcriptionists at the Record, but new technology and the ease of communication has put most of them out of work, so now Lena sits alone in a room on the building’s eleventh floor, far away from the hum of the newsroom that is the heart of the paper. Still, it is an important job—vital, really—a vein that connects the organs of the paper, and Lena takes it very seriously.
And then one day she encounters something that shatters the reverie that has become her life—an article in the paper about a woman mauled to death by lions in the city zoo. The woman was blind and remains unidentified, but there is a picture, and Lena recognizes her as someone whom a few days before she had met and talked to briefly while riding home on a midtown bus.
Obsessed with understanding what caused the woman to climb into the lion’s den, Lena begins a campaign for truth that will ultimately destroy the Record’s complacency and shake the venerable institution to its very foundation. In the process she finds a new set of truths that gives her the strength to shed what she describes as her “secondhand life” and to embrace a future filled with promise, maybe even adventure.
An exquisite novel that asks probing questions about journalism and ethics, about the decline of the newspaper and the failure of language, The Transcriptionist is also the story of a woman’s effort to establish a place for herself in an increasingly alien and alienating world.”
Thoughts: While the intent of the story is to inspire readers to search for their own meaning in life, The Transcriptionist ultimately depresses readers. Lena’s antics become increasingly desperate as she recognizes the growing futility of her position and struggles to connect with the doomed woman. However, therein lies the point Ms. Rowland attempts to portray. For, just as Lena begins to lose herself in the news stories she transcribes – mostly sensational, almost always describing terrible events throughout the world – so does each person who gets caught up in the headlines. As the press glories in reporting each and every negative news story in the world, it is easy to lose oneself to the horrors happening around the globe and thereby lose perspective and a sense of place in one’s smaller sphere of influence.
This sense of loss does not limit itself to the newspapers though. As Lena discovers through the increased use of technology by her colleagues, having the world available at one’s fingertips through smartphones, email, tablets, the Internet, and other portable devices encourages the lack of interpersonal communication. It is this failing in her own life that starts her on her path to uncover the truth behind the missing woman.
Lena is a complicated character. On the one hand, she prides herself on her exactitude at her job and her solitude outside of it. However, she also struggles with it, knowing it is not the healthiest way of life for a young woman and knowing she had much higher expectations of her life in New York. She removes herself from society and from the reader, so much so that a reader has difficulties getting to know and understand her. She is simultaneously a sympathetic character but also one that is too remote to be an empathetic one.
The writing within The Transcriptionist is beautiful. Lyrical without being overly poetic and symbolic, it ebbs and flows to mirror Lena’s moods. It draws a reader into the chaos of Lena’s mind, the bustle of New York streets, and the hustle of a newspaper always trying to meet printing deadlines. It showcases the beauty behind the city’s squalor and the peace among the commotion. Ms. Rowland’s prose is a true highlight of the novel.
The Transcriptionist is a fast-moving story about adaptation and the need for human interaction in a world increasingly reliant on the remoteness of technology. Lena’s forays outside of her isolated world only serve to highlight that need as she discovers more about herself and her aspirations than she ever thought she would know. It is a thinking person’s novel, as it provides plenty of fodder for reflection. While not the flashiest novel to hit bookstores, there is an earnestness and simplicity to the story that enhances Lena’s story and a reader’s overall enjoyment.