A debut novel from the cofounder of the Palestinian Festival of Literature which chronicles the aftermath of the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square through the experiences of Khalil, an Egyptian-Palestinian-American; Mariam, his Egyptian girlfriend; and their colleagues at Chaos, which they’ve founded in response to the state-controlled media.
...[an] astounding debut novel ... The novel pays reverent and repeated attention to the impact on the parents and friends of the dead, and asks what the dead are owed. The emotional, even spiritual shock of political deaths – their noisy horror and silent awe – has rarely been so well expressed ... The City Always Wins is a tale of defeat and dashed dreams and of hope’s persistence told in a poetic prose. The style is at once pared down and highly expressive. The tension between exuberance and restraint fits the subject matter and defines Hamilton’s method. He splits scenes to great effect, interspersing text messages, tweets and real headlines, raising the pitch until the final stretch of Khalil’s stream-of-consciousness ... Here is the novel form proving itself again, revealing far more than journalism can.
Omar Robert Hamilton’s explosive debut novel explains how Egypt got this way, and it does so with a combination of intensity and empathy rare in political fiction. There is no room for distanced irony here, nor is the novel an earnest polemic. Instead the view is admirably clear-sighted, evenhanded, at times kaleidoscopic. This is less a howl of rage than a sober accounting ... But there are pros and cons to the authorial strategy of forgoing the personal for the bigger picture. The City Always Wins is not an easy book to warm to. It can leave the reader skittering across the surface of events. There is, however, an authenticity to its wide-angle approach, a kind of revolutionary verisimilitude; and what the novel lacks in intimacy it more than atones for in its urgency ... The City Always Wins powerfully transmits the hope and despair of Egypt’s Tahrir Square generation, and the bravery and willingness of its members to keep fighting in the face of insurmountable obstacles. Mr. Hamilton plunges us into an important moment in recent history and makes us think about it anew. While the novel’s political message is clear, its tone is never hectoring, and its journalistic attention to detail never didactic. It is not always pleasurable to read but is always worth the trouble. It may even grow to be an important book—one of the defining novels of the Arab Spring.
The City Always Wins, though billed as a novel, reads more like an experiment in revolutionary reporting. To put it another way, Hamilton’s book is itself a version of the project its protagonists are engaged in. He puts immediacy front and center as he constructs a galvanizing record of what it felt like to be young and hopeful in a particular time and place ... Hamilton is deftly implicating himself and the reader alike—how much does watching a revolution unfold, even for the sake of recording it, really achieve? That urgent query animates The City Always Wins. Hamilton ventures a high-wire act in balancing his self-reflexive endeavor with the imperatives of a good novel—character development, narrative arc—and he doesn’t always pull it off. The novel’s deliberate disorientation can be vexing.