She was born in the English city of Liverpool to a family of Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants.
She was educated at The Belvedere School (Girls' Day School Trust), read English at the University of York (1972 to 1975), then completed an M.A. in English at McMaster University in Canada. She did post-graduate studies at Simon Fraser University.
In 1985 she returned to Britain and became a journalist, working for The Guardian and eventually wrote her own column for eighteen months. She published her first book, a non-fiction work, Sexing the Millennium: A Political History of the Sexual Revolution in 1993. She wrote a personal memoir of her mother's fight with vascular dementia called Remind Me Who I Am, Again.
Her second novel, When I Lived in Modern Times won the Orange Prize. Her fiction draws heavily on her Jewish background, family history, and the history of Liverpool. She has developed a special interest in the state of Israel.
In 2006, she was named a winner of the Lettre Ulysses Award for reportage.
The Clothes on Their Backs was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize and won the South Bank Show award in the Literature category.