Set in present-day Japan, ‘Above Earth, Below Heaven’ is a clear-eyed and humorous novel about relationships, life and death, and how friendships and interdependencies are formed.
Suzu, a twenty-five-year-old waitress who lives alone with her hamster Punsuke, meets Kōtarō067 through a dating app. She thinks their relationship is going well, but after three months he ghosts her. She loses her job. With her self-esteem on the floor, she looks for jobs without any customer contact and becomes a cleaner at a firm run by a Mr Sakai. The firm’s role is to clean up after people who have died alone and whose bodies have remained undiscovered for long periods of time – a growing phenomenon in Japan, known as ‘Kodokushi’ (lonely death). Suzu initially recoils at the decay and stench of dead bodies, but finds a sense of purpose and dignity in bonding with her team, who take a respectful approach to their work, performing a ritual as they deal with the dead and bring a sense of order.
One day Mr Sakai sends Suzu to find Takada, a team member who hasn’t been turning up for work. To her surprise, he lives in a manga kissa (an internet café offering overnight accommodation). Finding Takada lying on the floor in a cold and empty room, with a high fever, she takes him home with her and looks after him. During this time, her hamster, who usually disappears to the back of his cage when she approaches, becomes more friendly. Suzu begins to communicate directly with her neighbours, whose presence she had previously only been aware of when she heard their squabbling through the wall.
The seasons pass and winter comes around again. It becomes obvious that Mr Sakai, a chain smoker, is dying, and he hands over the reins of his business to one of the staff. Mr Sakai has always been a hoarder, but upon entering his flat after his death they find he has left it completely spick and span. With nothing left to do they give themselves the afternoon off.
This well-crafted, original, and occasionally humorous novel tackles some rarely-discussed and growing problems in today’s society—the practicalities of dealing with people who have died a lonely death, and the crumbling of family structures. Flašar’s language is fresh and cheerful, and she creates endearingly messed-up characters that readers will enjoy spending time with.
Rights sold: Netherlands (Cossee), Spain (MAPA, spanish), Spain (Quaderns Crema, catalan), Italy (Feltrinelli), Egypt (Al- Arabi Publishing), Finland (Lurra Editions).
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