Review of “The Transcriptionist” by Amy Rowland

Kate MacLam


I thought about The Transcriptionist for weeks and months after reading it, as my cat ate my hair (as ready as the lions—he didn’t even wait until I was asleep). When I first read it I was deep in MFA applications, pacing around the office where I worked as a combination, imitation social worker and imitation human resources employee. I longed to feel both satisfied and appreciated. As much as I wanted to help people with disabilities and their families, I hated their existential dysfunction. The book served me as a haunting manifesto against the nine-to-five and against a place I was unknowingly trespassing—the other side of empathy.


The Transcrptionist follows Lena, “a transcriptionist, but also a gatekeeper for background noise,” at the New Record Times as she chronicles the death of Arlene, a blind woman she met briefly and poignantly on the bus. In their brief meeting, Arlene proposes to Lena, “We can’t keep up with the suffering of others. We have to close ourselves off. How else can we survive?”

Early in the novel Rowland highlights Lena’s pattern of locking “herself up in a tower,” previously with religion and academia, now with her job. The story surrounds her breaking out of the tower—her voice the key. Filled with the thrill of someone doing what they shouldn’t be doing and reminders we are all only a moat away from our own lions, The Transcriptionist, creates a narrative that perfectly demonstrates the modern struggle between empathy and being consumed by sorrow.

Throughout the book we discover how Lena and Arlene, a court reporter, are connected. Arlene is blind and physically unable to see the people around her overlooking her. Similarly, others are blind to Lena, and she ignores the problem. Both women are employed to suppress their voices, replacing them with the voices of others, and by extension are rendered invisible. Lena (whose surname is Repass—meaning both to return and pass over) allows a co-worker to mistakenly call her “Carol” until he attempts to correct someone calling her Lena, “at first it didn’t matter and then it was too late,” she apologizes. Colleagues vouchsafe their dictation—calling the service “obsolete” and “quaint” in spite of recent use of the service. We discover eating Arlene upset the lions, which pairs beautifully with the way it haunts Lena to eat the words of the lion-hearted reporters.

At the heart of the novel is the idea that we must be empathetic but not consumed by the suffering of others. While visiting in the zoo in search of information about Arlene’s death, only she and a young boy are able to hear the roar of the lion at the zoo; only they are open to the suffering of others—but it is to the point of dysfunction. We must have our own voices and must speak our own truth. Lena is a reformed English scholar, and Rowland deftly integrates classic literature into the heart of her character. Lena often recites to herself, much the way she reads the newspaper, as a way to replace her own words, her own life, with those of others. We must listen. And we must, like Lena does, push ourselves back from the other side of empathy.

Filled with delicate prose, studied observations, and clever word play (“the Record records but it doesn’t remember”), the novel engages and impresses the reader with its style and intelligence. The Transcriptionist is satisfying read, which I appreciated very much.


The Transcriptionist by Amy Rowland

Algonquin Books