Book review: ‘House of Cotton’

A haunting tale of identity, desperation, and ghostly secrets

By Terri Schlichenmeyer

The role is yours, if you want it.

You can play the part on a stage or in a film, but there are a few requirements: you have to be able to sing and dance and speak with an accent. Can you convince an audience that you’re someone you’re not? As in the new book, “House of Cotton” by Monica Brashears, can you play dead?

Mama Brown wouldn’t have liked all the praying and singing, not at all. Nineteen-year-old Magnolia knew that for sure. Also for sure, Mama’s funeral was the last time Magnolia would go to church. Wasn’t anything there for her anymore.

No, she’d just go to her overnight job at People’s Gas Station, and try to avoid her landlord, Sugar Foot, who offered to trade sex for rent. She’d try to keep homeless “Cigarette” Sammy from eating out of trash barrels. She’d swipe on Tinder and, using a pseudonym, she’d sleep with random men.

She’d try to forget that she was pregnant and alone. 

House of Cotton 

by Monica Brashears

c.2023  Flatiron Books $27.99
304 pages

Monica Brashears is an Affrilachian writer from Tennessee. She is a graduate of Syracuse University’s MFA program. Her work has appeared in Nashville Review, Split Lip Magazine, Appalachian Review, The Masters Review, and more. 

And then one night, a well-dressed man came to the gas station and told Magnolia that she could be a model. Was it a come-on, a cliche that every almost-pretty girl hears? She couldn’t afford to ignore his offer and so she walked across Knoxville, walked across town, to a funeral home where her new job was ready for her.

Cotton was the man’s name; he said he was a seer and he’d inherited the business from his uncle.  Under his ownership, the funeral home was offering a new feature: for a fee, mourners who didn’t have closure over a loss could talk to Magnolia, who was made to look like their dearly departed, thanks to professional make-up and lighting. For an hour of her time, Magnolia would earn more money than she would in a month at the gas station.

It was an easy job. Cotton didn’t charge her rent for living in the home. For once in her life, Magnolia had money. She also had ghosts from the past, nudging her for her sins…

Sitting somewhere between fairy tales and a suspense novel, hovering around both an erotic tale and a humor story, it’s pretty safe to say that “House of Cotton” is unlike any other novel you’ve ever read. It’s weird, and it’s heartbreakingly beautiful.

Author Monica Brashears’ main character, Magnolia, is someone you want to reach into the pages and hug — if you weren’t sure she’d push you away for it. She’s just learning how to be an adult, and not liking it; she’s smart, but innocent yet and that’s a bad combination in this great story. Once she finds a job with Cotton and his Aunt Eden, then, the book takes a dark, ominous turn, like a modern-day old-fashioned Gothic novel. 

Readers shouldn’t be one bit surprised if they become nervous by then. It’s for good reason.

“House of Cotton” will surprise you. It’s not what you think it might be, and more; it’s a vacation read here for the packing, if you want it.

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