As a children, she was brought up in the USA by her mother and grandparents until the end of the Second World War. After WWII, she lived in Cairo, Egypt, with her parents. They later moved to Sudan and Eritrea. Inter alia, she attended boarding school in England and later studied at Somerville College, Oxford.
She won the 1980 Guardian Award for Children's Fiction for her novel The Vandal. Her novel Rhine Journey was shortlisted for the 1981 Booker Prize.She was elected to be a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1997.