Continuing in our series of Bacon Bits – tiny reviews of terrific books – today’s bloody good read is The Transcriptionist: A Novel, by Amy Rowland. The narrator becomes obsessed with the story of a woman who seems to have committed suicide by lion, swimming the moat after hours to enter their enclosure. In reflecting on that choice, the narrator thinks hard about what it means to live and die with courage – “with your head in the lion’s mouth.”
About the Narrator: Lena is one of the last of the transcriptionists at The Record, a newspaper that looks an awful lot like The New York Times. She works alone in a small, dark room all day, her primary company a pigeon on the window ledge and the ceaseless stream of voices reporting news stories that she listens to and transcribes. She feels like she might be losing her mind. Lena becomes gripped by the story of the woman and the lion, and her quest to figure out what led the woman to her choice takes on great urgency. Lena has to make some significant personal choices of her own as she learns more and more about the woman.
Note About the Author: Amy Rowland has been employed at The New York Times for more than a decade, where she herself spent time as a transcriptionist. She’s currently an editor of The New York Times Book Review. One of the pleasures of this book is the sense that you’re getting a little bit of inside baseball.
Questions Posed by the Book: What does it mean to live “a secondhand life”? What does it mean to live fully? Questions of journalistic ethics are also explored in a sideline plot involving a foreign news reporter taking shortcuts.
Effective Style Choice: Chapters are given titles that sound like news headlines, such as “Scientists Celebrate Theory of Everything,” “Hearing Is the Last Sense to Abandon the Dying,” and “Lions Upset after Mauling Woman to Death.” This worked well as a way to help convey the mindset and mental world of the narrator, her head filled to overflowing with news stories.
You Will Like This Book If: You’ve ever felt compassion for a lion in a cage. Or felt that you might be living in a cage, possibly of your own making. This book is much about different flavors of captivity.
You Will Love This Book If: You’re looking for a short, high-impact read as the summer winds down. The Transcriptionist won’t bore you for a second and will make you think.
Perfect for Book Club? Resounding yes. I love a debut novel: it’s something that’s been brewing for a while in an author’s mind and which has been seeking an outlet. The Transcriptionist feels fresh and urgent.