Above Earth, Below Heaven
Oben Erde, unten Himmel 

Verlag Klaus Wagenbach
February 2023 / 304pp
  • Nominated for the 'Evangelischen Buchpreis', Shortlist 2024
Sample Translation here
by Caroline Froh


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).

Find out more here: https://www.wagenbach.de/buecher/titel/1357-oben-erde-unten-himmel.html

press quotes

This is no less than a literary marvel!

Annemarie Stoltenberg, Norddeutscher Rundfunk

This wonderful novel shows what death teaches us about life.

Meike Schnitzler, Brigitte

A wise, touching, and human book.

Barbara Geschwinde, WDR 5 Literaturmagazin

I have seldom put down a book describing loneliness and the indifference of society with warmer feelings.

Stefan Kister, Stuttgarter Zeitung

about the author

© Helmut Wimmer

Milena Michiko Flašar was born in 1980 in St. Pölten, and studied German and Romance Languages and Literature in Vienna and Berlin. She is the daughter of a Japanese mother and an Austrian father. Her novels I Called Him Necktie and Mr Kato Plays Family have won several awards and been translated into numerous languages. The author lives with her family in Vienna.

Previous works: Ich bin, Residenzverlag (2008); Okaasan – Meine unbekannte Mutter, Residenzverlag (2010); Ich nannte ihn Krawatte, Verlag Klaus Wagenbach (2012); Herr Katō spielt Familie, Verlag Klaus Wagenbach (2018).

Previous translated works: I Called Him Necktie, New Vessel Press (2014): Mr Katō Plays Family, Forge Books (2023).

rights information

Verlag Klaus Wagenbach, Merle Ostendorp, rights@wagenbach.de

translation assistance

Applications for adult fiction or children’s books should be made to the Austrian Federal Ministry for Arts, Culture, the Civil Service and Sport in good time before the book goes to print.

share this recommendation

Share this on twitter, facebook or via mail.

All recommendations from Spring 2024