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'House of Cotton' is a bizarre, uncomfortable read — in the best way possible

Flatiron Books

Monica Brashears' House of Cotton is hard to classify.

On the surface, it's a Black southern gothic novel about a young woman learning to navigate life alone. But it's also a creepy ghost story with a sense of humor, a narrative about survival, and a strange tale of loss and grief sprinkled with sex, abuse, empathy, and a deep look at what it means to be dealt a rough hand at life from the very beginning.

That said, there's something that's very easy to declare about this novel: It's an incredible debut that announces the arrival of a unique voice in contemporary fiction.

Magnolia Brown is 19 years old, broke, alone, grieving, and pregnant. Her grandmother, Mama Brown, who took her in because her mother struggled with addiction and money, just died and left Magnolia at the mercy of a predatory landlord. Magnolia works a crappy job at a gas station and spends some of her time there hanging out with a silent homeless man she calls Cigarette Sammy. One night, a man named Cotton shows up at the gas station with blood on his hands and offers Magnolia a modeling job at his funeral home. Magnolia is hesitant to take the strange man up on his offer, but rent is due and she has no other opportunities lined up, so she takes a chance and goes to the funeral home. The offer from Cotton turns out to be real, and Magnolia soon finds herself turning into different people with the help of Cotton's partner, a hard-drinking woman named Eden who can use makeup to turn her into almost anyone.

The three of them help people talk to a reasonable facsimile of a lost loved one, and business is booming. The money is good and Magnolia stops going to the gas station and moves in with Cotton, but not everything goes well. Magnolia is afraid her unwanted pregnancy will be the end of their partnership and Cotton has strange desires and even stranger requests for their growing list of clients. While dealing with the aftermath of her abortion and trying to hide from her landlord, the ghost of Magnolia's late grandmother — herself haunted by a different ghost — starts visiting her and Magnolia soon understands that more than her rent hangs in the balance.

House of Cotton is a bizarre, uncomfortable read in the best way possible. Brashears delves deep into what it means to be a young, broke woman of color in a world in which predatory men are at your doorstep, in the streets, and even at church. She's not always likable, but real people rarely are, so her rough edges and the way she stumbles through life, a bit defiant, a bit scared, and sleeping with men to fill the void in her soul — and failing to do so — make her more memorable and unique, and her flaws contribute to the empathy she generates in readers.

To some degree, the same happens with Cotton, whose shady past and strange relationship with Magnolia are hard to swallow; Eden, who constantly looks like someone else and often vanishes only to return drunk but who also helped Magnolia with her abortion; and even Cigarette Sammy, who conveys a plethora of emotions with basically no dialogue at all. They are all slightly wrecked by life and lost and readers don't get all the pieces to their identity puzzles — but that, like many other things in the novel, merely reflects reality painfully well.

This is a novel that refuses to obey the rules of any one genre, and that, complicated as it might be for some, is one of the best things about it. At times, this reads like a coming-of-age story, but then Brashears shatters that with sexual abuse, lots of drinking, an abortion and its aftermath, and Magnolia's numerous sexual encounters with men she meets through an app. Similarly, the narrative seems rooted in reality, but then the ghost of Mama Brown — moving around in her rotting body — begins to appear, losing fingers one at a time, crawling from under the bed, and even stuffed into a drawer as a prank. As the supernatural weaves in and out of the story, Magnolia and Mama Brown's past take center stage and readers get to see what haunts each of them. Sure, the format is unique and thus not easy to process, but that just points to how Brashers isn't afraid to write to the beat of her own drum.

House of Cotton is peculiar and slightly surreal, but also dazzling, full of surprises, and told with a voice that's unpredictable and, more importantly, that lingers. Darkness can have slices of beauty at its core, and Brashears has a talent for pointing out that beauty, while its submerged in grit and grief. Fans of brave fiction would be remiss to skip this one.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gabino Iglesias