House of Cotton by Monica Brashears is a noir/ southern gothic novel set in the present day American south. The best way to describe it is from a quote I read on Goodreads: “the sly social commentary cuts straight to the bone, revealing the aftermath of the American plantation and what it means to be poor, Black, and a woman in the God fearing south.” It’s moody, gritty, and captivating.
The cover art was what drew me to this novel. I was scrolling through the Houston Public Library’s Libby selection and put this on hold a few days before it was released, so I was able to read it pretty quickly after the release date of April 4.
The House of Cotton Cover Art
Inside a structure that appears to be made of concrete resides a human heart. The arteries in the heart are arranged in such a way that it almost appears to be a sentient monster, with the sliver of an eye peeking out, staring right at you. A monarch butterfly rests on the top of the house-shaped structure. Sprigs of white, star-shaped flowers grow in and around the house, heavy with pollen. A bee is poised in flight, about to harvest the pollen that is freely available to it.
A cover like that says more than I can probably interpret on my own, so I did some research on the artist. What did I find? Absolutely nothing. I looked at all the major book blogs, the author’s twitter account, and I just can’t find any info about it. It’s so beautiful, I’d almost like to hang it on my wall!
Reading The House of Cotton
I read this book by listening to an audiobook. The entire time I was certain that the narrator was Bahni Turpin, one of my favorites. I was pleasantly surprised to be completely wrong! The narrators name is Jeanette Illidge, and I’ll be looking up more books that she’s narrated, because she’s incredible.
Now – to the book!
Magnolia is 19 years old and lives in a small house in the rural American south. She is being raised by her grandmother, Mama Brown. Her mother is an addict, her stepfather was abusive, and she has lived with her grandmother since she was 8. Magnolia’s life is one of seemingly endless trauma, and the book begins with Mama Brown’s funeral.
Magnolia deals with her pain by dissociating and engaging in risky behaviors. An example of the disassociation: she imagines herself as a warm loaf of bread, being carried to grandmother’s house. She is in Red Riding Hood’s basket. When she is sexually assaulted by her landlord – a Deacon in her church- she dissociates by imagining she is an inanimate object in a different fairy tale. This happens throughout the book, as she faces painful truths about the people she has loved or trusted.
Magnolia is a nice person, who often gives all she has to people who have even less than she does. Yet her generosity is short-sighted, and she often sabotages herself with her erratic behavior. With only a few dollars in her checking account and no paycheck coming for another week, she buys lipstick and perfume. She meets strangers on Tinder for anonymous sex, and engages with them in public, outside, and without protection or birth control.
She’s at work on the night shift at a gas station when a man named Cotton comes in and offers her a modeling job. She shows up at the address the next day, desperate to disentangle herself from her lecherous landlord. The address is a funeral home. She probably should have left at that point, but hey, sometimes you need to shoot your shot.
She accepts the job. It pays phenomenally well. All she has to do is impersonate missing and/or deceased people so their families can say their goodbyes. The assignments start out ok. The first clients are parents who desperately miss their child, who went missing as a young adult many years ago. The more and more cases that come in, the stranger the requests and lengths she has to go to do this job.
She is haunted by her grandmother, her choice to have an abortion, and the ways she deals with these hauntings and all of this trauma is through risky sexual encounters with strangers. She can only orgasm if they have fear in their eyes.
Magnolia is a woman who has been failed by every single person in her life except her grandmother, and it is her grandmother that haunts her as she grieves the loss of the person who made her feel like she belonged, like she was home. Her grandmother and the baby she aborted are the ghosts she can’t escape.
This is a beautiful piece of literature. Monica Brashears is an incredible writer and I look forward to watching what will certainly be an acclaimed and accomplished writing career. There are critics and professors out there who can tell you “why” this story writes itself into your bones, I’m not one of them. All I can tell you is that it does.
Nineteen years old, broke, and effectively an orphan, Magnolia doesn’t have much to look forward to. She feels stuck and haunted: by her overdrawn bank account, by her predatory landlord, by the ghost of her late grandmother Mama Brown.
One night while working at her dead-end gas station job, a mysterious, slick stranger named Cotton walks in and offers to turn Magnolia’s luck around. He offers her a lucrative “modeling” job at his family’s funeral home. Magnolia accepts. But despite things looking up, Magnolia’s problems fatten along with her wallet. When Cotton’s requests become increasingly weird, Magnolia discovers there’s a lot more at stake than just her rent.