"House of Cotton" | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
“House of Cotton,” by Monica Brashears, is written in the mode of the Southern Gothic genre with its characteristics of transgressive moral boundaries, dark humor, alienation and irrational thoughts. These characteristics, along with unanticipated twists and turns, make “House of Cotton” a book hard to put down once begun.
The story begins with 19-year-old Magnolia attending her grandmother’s funeral. She feels “trapped and choked” by the loud “Hallelujahs” shouted by the black Baptist preacher amid mountains of flowers she knows Mama Brown would have hated. Magnolia slips into a fantasy world where she is a black bean nestled in the earth, soon growing into a strong stalk, but held back by a boy digging into her very core. Magnolia has used the ability to slip out of her surroundings like this since she was a 5-year-old girl. Apparitions and dreams propel Magnolia’s journey throughout the story.
Themes of loss, rejection, a need for home, and even unremitting love and loyalty drive Brashear’s story of an Appalachian girl abandoned by her drug-addled mother and the church community that is full of empty promises. Magnolia is alone, mired in poverty, and desperately trying to keep her and Mama Brown’s modest house from the clutches of an unsavory landlord.
Magnolia feels hopeless until Cotton, a strange man who works at a nearby funeral home with a white clientele, approaches her at the convenience store where she works. He promises her more cash than she has ever dreamed of in return for an unusual job opportunity. She is invited to act the part of a deceased person whose family wants to interact with their loved one just one more time through live videos.
Magnolia agrees to this strange proposal and moves into the funeral home with Cotton and Eden, the owner of the funeral home. Eden has a gift with cosmetics and transforms the light-brown-skinned Magnolia into the image of a deceased, or missing young woman, based on pictures the family has sent to Cotton, whose costly services have spread mostly through word of mouth.
When Magnolia’s performance for a family is taped, she has visions of how the person she is representing has disappeared or died. She also has visions, apart from the taping, of Mama Brown’s appearances from the grave. Mama Brown haunts Magnolia by giving advice that she mostly ignores.
The author invokes an edgy atmosphere with her descriptions of the heat, of the isolated mountain homes, and the dreariness of an Appalachian town. The story is a tense tale with violence and tenderness at its core.
I loved the character of Magnolia, a young person with serious moral flaws but also filled with trust, loyalty, hopeful anticipation, and finally, a woman determined to rise above her circumstances.
“House of Cotton” is Monica Brashears’ debut novel. She is from Tennessee, the setting for the story. I predict she will be a strong new voice representing Southern Gothic literature. Her influences are Toni Morrison, Jesmyn Ward, and other strong black writers.