...[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.
Omar Robert Hamilton’s debut, The City Always Wins, is a chronological disruption of a novel, beautifully and mostly cinematically capturing the majesty of ‘bodies and rage and grief’ on the ground and memories in broken hearts … He upturns all senses of temporal comfort, infusing the novel with Jacques Derrida’s idea of ‘time out of joint,’ a zone of opaque possibilities. This intertextual technique shakes the reader out of her ontological slumber, to engage with Hamilton’s narrative rather than read his dispatch-like writing as a bystander … The City Always Wins is a brooding read, one that is manifestly rich in its gritty juxtapositions of pain, satire, elation, and the corporeal textures of blood and bodies, Cairo ever melancholically present.
[Hamilton] he skillfully manipulates the push and pull between fact and fiction in the novel, punctuating the narrative with date stamps, real tweets, and newspaper headlines. Anyone familiar with Egypt’s recent history knows what’s coming; the suspense lies in one’s uncertainty about how the characters will respond ... Hamilton’s narrative serves, in part, as a challenge to the official record, which insists that the Army did not kill peaceful protesters and that Sisi protected the revolution. The book also challenges the myth that January, 2011, was beautiful and peaceful. In this way, too, it is a reminder of the suppression and violence that continue ... What propels the story forward is not the realization of a utopian system—it’s the people who feel this unshakeable need to do something, and the lived experience of that necessity.
As a documentary-like portrait, The City Always Wins is an intermittently revealing literary work by a fiercely engagé writer. But with underdeveloped and for the most part interchangeable characters, the book fails as imaginative fiction ... To the disturbingly cynical Hamilton, politics is everything; love ignites and sputters out in time with the political realities of the day.
Omar Robert Hamilton’s debut novel, The City Always Wins, capturing Cairo in the convulsions of the revolution, brought back a bad memory of Srinagar ...the novel is not just an intimate act of witness to the outpourings of the people protesting in Tahrir Square and the military brutalities and massacres that followed; the novel’s strength lies rather in the moments that unfold within the quiet of houses rather than the roar of the street, for instance, when Khalil... Hamilton recreates chunks of Khalil’s beleaguered consciousness with the fidelity of an impressionist, and one’s knowledge of Khalil at the end is almost the same as it was at the beginning ... Khalil’s voice is interchangeable with the voice of other characters. It is the authorial voice that dominates and diminishes him. At times, the dialogue is too dramatic to be credible.
His style and tone reveal how high the stakes are, and the confusion that prevails amid propaganda, but Hamilton’s attempts to describe more individual conflicts are only moderately successful ... The novel implies that there’s little time for such solipsistic musings when the presidential palace has been converted into a torture chamber, but the emotional distance dampens the impact of Hamilton’s storytelling about its victims. A well-informed, earnest tale of life during a flailing revolution.
Much of Hamilton’s book moves at a blistering pace, and he proves a worthy guide to the notable events captured here. But like its narrator, Hamilton’s book is enervated by rallies dwindling to 'fifty, sixty people where once there were ten thousand,' and later chapters are prolonged by Khalil’s musings on how Egypt has become 'an island floating away from reality.' The book is at its best when recording the events of the revolution, rather than when it serves as an exploration of Khalil’s character and relationships.