This is about as far as you can get from the magical world of Harry Potter. There are no Dumbledores or Hagrids here, much less any wizardry. The book takes you to a small unmagical town (Pagford), with small self-absorbed people who lack empathy or wisdom. Depite this, it is a testimony to J.K. Rowling’s talent that she is able to keep the reader—this reader, at any rate!—deeply absorbed.
The book starts with a death—that of Pagford’s parish councillor, Barry Fairbrother, who seems to be the nicest person in the book. His presence, though, is felt throughout the book. The death starts a political struggle for the councillor’s seat, the “casual vacancy” of the title. Pagford parish is divided into two factions, one that wants to keep “the Fields”—a housing project—in Pagford, and the other that wants to fob it off on a nearby town called Yarvil. Pagford’s traditionalists reject the Fields, seeing it as a hotbed of junkies and criminals. But the “liberals”, led by Barry, see the Fields—built on land belonging to a local landowner—as part of Pagford. They want the Fields’ children to have, like Barry, a chance at a better life.
Rowling’s book has a large set of characters, each playing a key role. Her most sympathetic people are teenagers who cope with personal problems, many of which are not of their making. The book’s characters are not drawn in great detail—but that is not the point of the book. This is a scathing social commentary and looks largely at how we, as a society, treat those who have odds stacked against them. Parts of the book are funny, but there is a lot of anger here.
I read some of the negative reviews that the book received. Part of the problem, I think, is that it is written by J.K. Rowling, the woman who was hugely successful with the Harry Potter series. So take my advice, forget the author and enjoy the book!