Derek Owusu's somber debut, "That Reminds Me," is lightly autobiographical, like much of today's fiction.

The novel's protagonist — known as K — is raised, as was Owusu, by white foster parents in the English countryside, but moves back to his biological family in London, where he was born, and explores his Ghanaian heritage. The oppressive journey, related in K's fearless, often disturbingly forthright voice, conveys extraordinary pain and unhappiness, eased only by the beauty and compassion of Owusu's writing.

At K's school in London, he encounters racism in many forms. He is told his "breath smells like an African," and the first time he has a friend over, the boy runs "back to tell our class I was poor." His relationship with his mother is hot and cold, clouded by persistent questions about why she sent him "to be raised by people whose lives were so different to our own, people she didn't even know." His dad, a "mouse-like miser of a man," makes only short visits.

When K's father is around, he hits the child, convincing K he "must be a bad boy; [he] must deserve it; [he] must have done something wrong." Violence — physical and psychological — is a constant for K. His foster mother rubs a habanero pepper on his face after he lights a tissue on fire. And when K and his white friends are robbed, the nonwhite thieves leave K alone, telling him, "You're safe. You don't need to worry." The encounter makes him believe "'Bad boys' weren't just mindless men morphed from the darkness, but people like me."

There are tender moments, too, many involving K's younger brother, who takes his first toddling steps toward K. When K is 18, he is diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, the manifestations of which he has tried to cope with by drinking to excess and cutting himself — "an appeasement to the me who salivates at my life ending." In a brutal précis of his many obstacles, K writes of the razor blade marks, "I'm told they're beautiful, described as battle scars or assumed to be tribal marks by awed onlookers unable to detangle their thinking from two-dimensional tropes."

The novel's bite-sized chapters, most of which run no more than a page, are written in first-person prose filled with poetic flourishes. Assonance is abundant ("the scorch of her scorn") and so is gorgeous slant rhyme ("the preserves on savoury hors d'oeuvres"). Again and again, sentences sing with K's frisky wordplay, as when he spies what turns out to be a mouse: "No sparrow had swooped in, stepped in stately with sandy feet, so I was sure what I saw came from wherever deities defined as outdoors."

Literary fiction often travels through bleak terrain, and "That Reminds Me" mostly lives there. It helps immensely to have a guide with Owusu's assured talent.

Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer whose upcoming reviews for the Star Tribune include "Tell Me What I Am" by Una Mannion.

That Reminds Me

By: Derek Owusu.

Publisher: And Other Stories, 120 pages, $16.95.