“‘Mama Brown died.’ Those words falling from my lips make me feel like I’m speaking in tongues. Those words make me wish I believed in ghosts. Haunt me, Mama. Even if you a tiny puff of smoke…Haunt me like you ain’t ever left me at all.”
This paragraph from the early pages of House of Cotton captures a love so enormous and a grief so loud that the protagonist, a nineteen-year-old Black woman named Magnolia, has no choice but to be haunted by it—setting into motion the tragedies and rebirths that follow.
House of Cotton follows Magnolia in the immediate aftermath of her grandmother Mama Brown’s death. Alone, barely making rent, she’s facing a possible unplanned pregnancy and a predatory landlord. When she crosses paths with a young white man named Cotton and his aunt Eden, she’s pulled into their increasingly strange business that takes more of her by the day.
Cotton and Eden’s business, an almost Cameo-style operation in which clients pay to speak with Magnolia dressed as their dead loved one, pushed my suspension of disbelief. But Brashears elegantly made me want to believe by moving House of Cotton into a realm of magical realism with short, lyrical breaks in which Magnolia inhabits objects from well-known fairytales. These passages take the Grimms’ stories and retell them in Magnolia’s distinctly southern voice. She is the straw spun into gold in Rumpelstiltskin’s tale: “The pain got to make me brand new. I am shining. I am a heap of gold. I don’t feel nothing but the glimmer.” She is the bean turned stalk in Jack’s adventure with the giants: “But the boy can’t let me be. He wraps his legs around me and pulls up his milk-fed body. His bones dig into me. I say, ‘The fuck you climbing up me for?’” She is a hairbrush, a loaf of bread, and a house made of sticks. Brashears’s ability to take fairytales that have been told a thousand times by Eurocentric, white voices and reshape them to Magnolia’s life is one of House of Cotton’s strongest features.
The retelling of these fairytales underlines what Magnolia begins to realize as the novel progresses—Cotton is using her, demanding access to and control of her body. The little violences multiply, magnifying as Cotton and Magnolia begin having sex outside of the work they do together with his aunt Eden. Eden’s importance in Magnolia’s life grows in tandem, seemingly an almost maternal figure—fulfilling her yearning for Mama Brown and her absentee mother, alive but a struggling drug addict. But as their relationship develops, Eden’s own racism comes to the surface. Magnolia observes her looking: “Maybe she got a fear of this body I hold. Thighs thick and meant for slithering. Plump lips ready to suck souls. Like I’m some kind of Medusa. This brown skin telling her: I am a whore, I am a hungry whore, won’t you fill me up?”
Amidst, and inextricable from, these relationships is Magnolia’s abortion. The chance she had at motherhood, even though she wasn’t ready for it, haunts her. The ghost of a baby joins the grief she is already experiencing for her grandmother, and she tries to avoid being overwhelmed by it while working for Cotton and Eden.
Against all odds, Magnolia reclaims herself. In the novel’s final chapters, supported by the ghost of Mama Brown, she carves a way out and stands alone—feeling “the way newborns must feel—spank of a gloved hand, lungs flushed with swirls of wind. Stunned.”
House of Cotton is a painful story to read, because it’s written beautifully–Brashears’s sentences are meticulously constructed, almost like poetry. The novel’s power is in its characters and their voices, which have stayed with me long after reading the book. House of Cotton struggles a little with pacing—it picks up speed unevenly towards the end, leaving portions of the conclusion feeling rushed, but the book’s other aspects are more than skilled enough to compensate. It’s one of the most innovative stories I’ve read in a long time, and a debut from Monica Brashears that promises more incredible work.
House of Cotton confronts the lasting legacy of slavery in the American South and the way Black women are still objectified, and its intersection with gender dynamics and sexual assault. Its blend of southern gothic and horror results in a haunting that lasts long after the book ends. Readers of writers like Carmen Maria Machado, Toni Morrison, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia will especially love House of Cotton.
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication Date: April 4, 2023
Reviewed by Lauren Michelle Finkle