A History of Present Illness

A Novel


By Anna DeForest

Formats and Prices




$31.00 CAD

This “brutal and brave” (Booklist) novel transmutes the practice of medicine into a larger exploration of humanity, the meaning of care, and the nature of annihilation—physical, spiritual, or both.

A young woman puts on a white coat for her first day as a student doctor. So begins this powerful debut, which follows our unnamed narrator through cadaver dissection, surgical rotation, difficult births, sudden deaths, and a budding relationship with a seminarian.   In the troubled world of the hospital, where the language of blood tests and organ systems so often hides the heart of the matter, she works her way from one bed to another, from a man dying of substance use and tuberculosis, to a child in pain crisis, to a young woman, fading from confusion to aphasia to death. The long hours and heartrending work begin to blur the lines between her new life as a physician and the lifelong traumas she has fled.    In brilliant, wry, and biting prose, A History of Present Illness is a boldly honest meditation on the body, the hope of healing in the face of total loss, and what it means to be alive.

2023 Rosenthal Family Foundation Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters • A Lit Hub Most Anticipated Book of 2022 • A Publishers Weekly “Writer to Watch”

“A revelation.” –The New York Times


  • “[Anna DeForest’s] writing is dreamlike and fragmentary, a sequence of vivid scenes that the reader must piece together, like a puzzle, to understand who exactly is telling us this story. The answer, tucked in the book’s last pages, is a revelation.” 
    Ellen Barry, The New York Times
  • "Brutal and brave, DeForest's novel is one of the best in the 'making of a doctor' genre. And its plucky protagonist, casualty and hero, roars a universal truth, 'We all hurt.'"
    Booklist (starred review)
  • "Throughout, the narrator offers arresting reflections on the godlike powers doctors hold over their patients... This slim volume gives readers much to contemplate."
    Publishers Weekly
  • “Unusual, quiet, but dark ...The tone can be abstract, musing on poetry or anatomy, at other times, revelatory of medical norms and modes of expression. An original, disturbing new version of hospital fiction.”
  • “Insightful... a powerful and somewhat complicated read of a story about a young woman dealing with the intensity of becoming a doctor while she also faces the ramifications of her past and current personal life.”
    The New York Journal of Books
  • “A History of Present Illness is a singular read, full of beauty and wit and monstrous truth. It took me down dark corridors of loss and out into the too bright sunshine again. I’ve never read anything like it. Wholly original and shockingly brilliant.”
    Jenny Offill, author of Weather
  • "Anna DeForest stares death in the eye, understands it fully, and writes it down simply. Like all mortals, I’ve acutely needed this book all my life. At last it’s here."
    Sarah Manguso, author of Very Cold People
  • "This book destroyed my heart, and then restored it. The raw eloquence of the language, the wisdom spiked with gallows humor, the young woman who transcends an early life of damage—the tension and triumph come from how easily the narrator's life could have gone the other way. She wonders: 'To get over what you've come from but to stay who you are. What would that even look like?'  It looks like this novel, and it is beautiful."
    Amy Hempel, author of The Collected Stories
  • "Nowhere else have I ever encountered such brutal wisdom—about life, about the body, about our shared circumstance as the future dead—delivered with such grace, such largeness of heart.  Anna DeForest's fearless, unsparing debut is a life raft thrown out for all of us to cling to." 
    Garielle Lutz, author of The Complete Gary Lutz
  • “A stunning debut—original, creative and wholly satisfying, taking us not only into the medical world but into the human spirit. Anna DeForest is a writer to watch.”
    Danielle Ofri, MD, author of What Doctors Feel and When We Do Harm

On Sale
Aug 16, 2022
Page Count
176 pages

Anna DeForest

About the Author

Anna DeForest is also the author of the novel A History of Present Illness. Anna has an MFA from Brooklyn College and an MD from Columbia University and works as a palliative care physician at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

Learn more about this author