Winner 2017 Mark and Yvette Moran Nib Literary Award Finalist 2018 Melbourne Prize Best Writing Award Shortlist 2018 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (non-fiction) Shortlist 2018 CHASS Australia Book Prize Longlist 2018 Stella Prize Longlist 2018 Australian Book Industry (ABIA) Awards

Kate Cole-Adams has written a book that defies familiar categories – it is a personal memoir, a history, a scientific study, and a philosophical enquiry into the unconscious – and by drawing all these strands together she has delivered a masterpiece.
— Judges' report, 2017 Nib prize

You know how it is when you go under. The jab, the countdown, the—and then you wake.
This book is about what happens in between.

Until a hundred and seventy years ago many people chose death over the ordeal of surgery. Now hundreds of thousands undergo operations every day. Anaesthesia has made it possible.

But how much do we really know about what happens to us on the operating table? Can we hear what’s going on around us? Is pain still pain if we are not awake to feel it, or don’t remember it afterwards? How does the unconscious mind deal with the body’s experience of being cut open and ransacked? And how can we help ourselves through it?

Haunting, lyrical, sometimes shattering, Anaesthesia leavens science with personal experience to bring an intensely human curiosity to the unknowable realm beyond consciousness.


Reviews and reactions

An obsessive, mystical, terrifying, and even phantasmagorical exploration of anesthesia’s shadowy terra incognita. – Joshua Rothman, The New Yorker

Extraordinarily well-researched and delicately structured, this is a book with few parallels. Exceptional writing illuminates a topic that affects most of us, but that few of us understand. – Judges' comments 2018 Victorian Premier's Literary Awards

… the single best account of our profession’s most philosophically fragile constructs—consciousness and self…Cole-Adams has distilled and articulated the art of our profession, and from that we all stand to benefit. – Anaesthesia Intensive Care (editorial)

Elegantly and, at times, heart-breakingly parsing the murky space between presence and absence, Cole-Adams has crafted a mesmerizingly unique memoir that is bound to haunt readers well beyond the last page. – Winnipeg Free Press

A work of splendid richness and depth, driven by a curiosity so intense that it hazards at times the extreme boundaries of the sayable. – Helen Garner

A novelist as well as a journalist based in Melbourne, Australia, she writes fluidly and dramatically, using her travels, researches and interviews to trace her anxieties about her forthcoming general anesthetic back to their roots. – Mike Jay, Wall Street Journal

Anaesthesia is part memoir, part science writing, part cultural essay, but particularly brings to mind superb nature writers like Helen McDonald (H is for Hawk) and Michael Pollan (Second Nature), for the way it uses this octopus concept to open philosophical questions, and to reflect. –Oliver Driscoll, Readings

Cole-Adams blends research, reflection, and memoir to try to grapple with the meaning of consciousness. . . . [T]hese are thought-provoking questions, and Cole-Adams presents a lyrical journey through the vital question of what it means to be human. – Kirkus Reviews

To Anesthesia she brings lush gifts of description, a poetry of the body and mind. The chest and belly are “fortified cities.” The liver is a “dark sump.” Consciousness is a “shimmering edifice.” – Michael Friedrich, LA Review of Books

Of all the books and journals and articles I have read on anaesthesia over thirty years of anaesthetic and recovery nursing, this is the one which will affect me the most, personally and professionally. – Below Ten Thousand

Anaesthesia is not just an account of medical research but a poetic exploration of the mysteries of the human mind. – Jane McCredie, The Australian

Ok look I will shut up soon but - I've just finished this. I think it is utterly brilliant. I will read anything this woman writes forever more. She is Just. So. Good. Human, funny, insightful, super smart, a most original and perceptive writer. I ended the book in tears. It is not just about medical stuff, but deeply personal stuff. About the psyche, and pain of all kinds, and triumphing, surviving, exploring, being brave and powerful and honest. About what is said and what isn't, about listening, about dreams and hypnosis and consciousness, which is to say, about our deepest selves. You might be getting the picture: I adored it to bits. – Charlotte Wood, author The Natural Way of Things

With Anesthesia, Kate Cole-Adams has given us a gift. She explores not only the concepts but the characters who hope to understand the shadowy world of the anesthetized mind. However, Cole-Adams transforms from being an observer to a fellow journeyer, providing authentic insight and transmitting the excitement of those who believe that these drugs are ethereal keys that could unlock the vault of consciousness itself – George Mashour, author of Neuroscientific Foundations of Anesthesiology

Her voice is expressive, empathetic and smart...a compelling book – Leyla Sanai, The Spectator

Cole-Adams' prose is sinuous, at times intoxicating, and witty... Her paraphrasing of studies (and there a lot of studies in this book) is deft and faithful to the research.  – Gail Bell, The Age/Sydney Morning Herald

Anyone wishing to know about the latest research or more unorthodox, transcendental speculations will find it here. Michael D. Langan, NBC-2

This book opened my mind to the limitless possibilities of non-fiction. It's a raw and revealing memoir, a deeply researched scientific investigation, and poses some mind blowing spiritual and philosophical questions. It's also beautifully written and so readable. Loved every second of it. – Avid Reader, Our Favourite Books So Far in 2017

A troubling, anxious subject that most of us would rather avoid or deflect with dark humour. Cole-Adams has illuminated it in a memorable way. The book is a gift not of oblivion but of awareness. –Nick Haslam, Inside Story

Questions like these haunt Cole-Adams, and her tenacious exploration of what anaesthesia is and is not leads her deep into provinces that share its bleary borders: dreams, memory, the nature of consciousness. – The Saturday Paper

The result is a nuanced, powerful book, grounded in Cole-Adams’ decision to undergo scoliosis surgery, and developed around the analogy of submerging in a bottomless sea and breaking into wakefulness like a swimmer surfacing from the depths. – Kara Allen, The Conversation

After its “long gestation” this book has delivered an important contribution to medical literature in Australia and internationally. Despite the detail and the intensity of the experiences described, it will never put you to sleep. – Robin Osborne, Northern Rivers General Practice Network

Anaesthesia touches on the big philosophical mysteries about consciousness, about who we are. It is a portal through which we can explore some of humanity’s biggest mysteries: Who are we? What’s life? What is it like to be us?” – Sarah Price, The Saturday Paper

[An] insightful and moving exploration of general anesthesia: a must-read for anesthetists and their patients. – Professor Kate Leslie, head of research in the Department of Anaesthesia and Pain Management, Royal Melbourne Hospital; former head of the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists

The author has ... watched anaesthetists at work and incorporated her own and family experiences together with numerous anecdotes to create a rich read. Told in the true style of an experienced journalist, this fascinating insight is very well-supported with references to books and scientific papers. – Clive Trotman, Otago Daily Times