Always Two and Two

Tabea Steiner

German, Edition Bücherlese, 2023

“The older woman looked the two younger women in the face. She noticed that one of them had a red tip to her nose, and pulled her coat tighter about her shoulders. Yes, she said again, and another tiny cloud rose from her mouth. One of the young women returned her gaze and said with little air in her voice: May we pray for you?”

“Aglow the alabaster stood in the room. She walked around it tapping it gently with the hammer on the chisel’s head, taking off fine layers. Particles splintered through the room, one hitting the protective glass. Natali squinted.”

Natali is balancing her time as artist, teacher, mother of two and wife of a supportive if somewhat overbearing husband, when she falls for another woman. Her life starts to unravel, laying bare the controlling mechanisms of the religious congregation to which her family belongs. A careful and caring study of a woman’s quest to liberate herself from the constraints of a manipulative society.

There were always two and two, of each animal a male and a female, Manuel explains; that’s how they survived the Flood. While he takes his daughters to the zoo, his wife Natali is preparing the Sunday sermon she has been assigned with Kristin, a freelance pastor, who she met at a teacher training seminar. Over time the two women gently but inevitably drift towards each other, both struggling with past experiences and the expectations and demands of their surroundings.

When Manuel sees his barely domesticated patriarchal hold over Natali vanish, he moves with his daughters to his mother’s place, and much of the ensuing conflict between the couple is rendered in Tabea Steiner’s masterful observation of the effects the break-up has on the two children. Their naive involvement with religion also contrasts with the constrictions the group imposes, and illustrates the complexity of its hold on its members, from the safety it provides them to the oppression it subjects them to.

In parallel with Natali’s, the story of her best friend Rosalie also unfolds. During a pilgrimage to Israel – described with an antic, at times hilarious accuracy – Rosalie finally succumbs to Tobias’ repeated marriage proposals, out of fear of being left out, of longing to belong. While Natali gains her independence, Rosalie loses hers, and the contentment she finds in complying with convention offers an insight into the state of mind that may have led Natali to marry Manuel in the first place.   

Like Natali, who carves an alabaster headstone in her studio for her dead father-in-law, Tabea Steiner releases her story layer by layer with great precision and restraint as well as a palpable empathy for all her characters, leaving any judgment to the reader.  

Tabea Steiner’s second novel (her debut Balg was shortlisted for the Swiss Book Price in 2019) is a subtle and in-depth exploration of the mechanisms of a self-proclaimed Free Church, revealing the rigidity and unforgivingness of a seemingly benevolent and harmonious organization that exploits the primal fears of shame, isolation, loneliness to keep divergent members – namely women – in their place. An intimate and unpretentious story of personal liberation that can be read as a comment on the ambiguous approach of today’s Western society to nonconformity of any kind.

Text by Gabrielle Alioth

Immer zwei und zwei
Edition Bücherlese
Translation rights
Agency Poppenhusen, Astrid Poppenhusen,
Publication date
February 2023


Tabea Steiner

Tabea Steiner, born in 1981, studied German literature and ancient history. She grew up on a farm in eastern Switzerland and now lives in Zurich. Her writing discusses on the difficulty of the simple things in carefully composed, high-resolution linguistic images. In harsh realities and small-scale worlds, the traits of the interpersonal that are as rough as they are delicate are revealed. It is often the inconspicuous gestures that are observed, as if under a magnifying glass. The author spent the summer of 2014 as an artist-in-residence in Genoa, and the summer of 2019 as a fellow at the Literarisches Colloquium Berlin. Her first novel, Balg [Brat], was published in 2019 by Edition Bücherlese and was shortlisted for the Swiss Book Prize. Tabea Steiner is also part of the teams who curate the Thun Literature Festival and the Bernese Aprillen reading festival, and was a member of judging panel for the Swiss Literature Awards.

Photo: © Ayse Yavas