2017 Stella Prize: Australia's best women's writing

The Stella Prize is a fiercely contested award for the best work of literature, fiction or nonfiction, published by an Australian woman.

The winner receives $50,000 — though sadly two of this year's shortlisted writers died last year.

RN's Books and Arts explains the broad range of work by the prize's six shortlisted authors.

An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire

This novel puts an act of sexual violence at its centre. A young woman — Bella — is raped and murdered.

But An Isolated Incident is not another sensationalist account of violence against women.

Instead, it critiques the media's obsession with "pretty dead girls" and explores the impact of Bella's death on her community, particularly on her sister Chris.

Chris is the kind of character Emily Maguire excels at — a woman who likes sex, has regrets, but won't be anyone's fool.

Her point of view helps this novel turn the genre of the thriller on its head.

Dying: A Memoir by Cory Taylor

Cory Taylor wrote novels of clarity and beauty.

When she was told she was dying of melanoma, Cory turned those talents to her own mortality.

In Dying: A Memoir, she reflects on her own life and family, and more broadly on the way we die now and the ways our medical system often colludes in our pretending that, somehow, we're not.

With the support of Karuna, a Buddhist-run hospice service in Brisbane, Cory instead turned her gaze towards the impending reality of her death.

This steady-looking seems essential to her having a "good death", and as this quietly remarkable book illustrates, that kind of looking entails its own tribute to the sweetness of life.

Poum And Alexandre by Catherine de Saint Phalle

Poum and Alexandre is a tender biography of Catherine de Saint Phalle's charming, damaged parents, and her unusual childhood in Paris.

De Saint Phalle's mother Poum is a fragile woman, equally obsessed with death and The Odyssey.

She meets the irrepressible Alexandre, a banker and member of the French Resistance, just after World War II in liberated Paris.

De Saint Phalle's parents are steadfastly unconventional and remain unmarried, despite the strong disapproval of their relatives.

Told from the perspective of a clear-eyed child, this biography paints a portrait of a flawed, eccentric couple without judgment or reproach.

According to the Stella Prize judges' report, the book "deserves to be an instant classic of the biography genre".

Not bad, given that Poum and Alexandre is the very first work of non-fiction by de Saint Phalle, a Melbourne-based tutor, translator and writer.

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

Tasmanian author Heather Rose's The Museum of Modern Love is a bold and creative exploration of the intersection between life and art.

It's a novel inspired by the performance artist Marina Abramovic and her most famous piece, The Artist is Present, during which the artist sat on a chair at a table for 75 days at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 2010.

Yet it's not just an exploration of Abramovic's work. It centres on characters whose lives are at a crossroads and who are in the audience of The Artist is Present.

There's Arky Levin, a film composer coming to terms with his separation from his beloved wife and his stagnating career.

There's also a widow, a PhD student, an art reviewer and some real life characters including, of course, Marina Abramovic, and a ghost.

It is an ambitious, transformative novel on the power of art and love.

The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke's memoir describes growing up in the suburbs of Western Sydney in the 1980s.

In many respects, Beneba Clarke's childhood was just like that of all the other kids living around her — driving a beat-up Ford Falcon, eating vegemite on toast for breakfast — but the fact that Maxine and her family were black made everything different.

Readers of colour will resonate with many of Beneba Clarke's experiences, while for white readers, The Hate Race is a revelation — the casual and constant racism she encountered almost every time she stepped out her front door, the way that was dismissed by most of her teachers, the emotional toll the harassment took on her, and the courage she called on to resist.

This book is written with precision and force, and addresses some urgent realities of Australian society.

Between A Wolf and a Dog by Georgia Blain

This 2017 Victorian Premiere's Literary Award-winning novel is set during one day in the life of four characters as their lives unravel.

There's the estranged sisters Ester and April.

Ester is an amateur artist and therapist who counsels patients on finding happiness while her own home life falls apart.

April was a singer in her prime but her career has stagnated.

Then there's Lawrence, Ester's ex-husband, who is coming to terms with the mistakes of his past.

Hilary Marcel is the mother of Ester and April; a filmmaker completing her last film and she reveals that she's been diagnosed with brain cancer.

The author herself was diagnosed with brain cancer after writing the novel and she died in December 2016.

This is life imitating art in its saddest manifestation.

The winner of The Stella Prize will be announced on April 18.