Shantaram is first and foremost the story of a man on the run after escaping from prison in Australia, assuming a false identity and living in Bombay. The scope of the story is epic - every character is a study in culture, language and ethnicity; every location - from the tourist bars to the slums - described in majestic, agonising detail. The prose is beautiful, on one level reading like poetry, with many instantly memorable passages and often leaving me feeling as though there is no better way of describing a feeling or an emotion. On another level, the author uses an almost colloquial manner of speech that draws the reader in and makes you feel as though you're sitting exchanging stories in front of a fire, and you just want to keep talking through until dawn. The opening chapter makes bold promises about where the story will go - drugs, violent crime, prison, mafia and war. After a third of the book, I'm emotionally invested in at least half a dozen characters, and anxious about their fate!
Roberts' writing is like a fine wine that you want to inhale, swill, savour and absorb everything he has to offer. Shantaram is not the kind of book I would usually read, but it does have similarities to fantasy fiction because of the intricately drawn characters and the foreign world that it takes place in (well, foreign to me anyway). It also bears some resemblance to travel narrative or memoir, being told from the journeyman's point of view, with rich, detailed interactions with the city and it's inhabitants.